Legal Challenges to Drive Calif. Prison Construction
By Helen Christophi (01/31/2011)

There is no end in sight to California’s prison woes.

Last month the state’s newly elected Gov. Jerry Brown proposed moving low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails to ease prison overcrowding and reduce the state’s $28 billion deficit.

A federal court ruled in 2009 that California must reduce its state prison population by 30,000. The U.S. Supreme Court will rule in early 2011 on whether to uphold the lower federal court’s ruling and force the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to decrease its inmate population. The overcrowded conditions were called “cruel and unusual” and cited as a driver behind prison riots, inadequate delivery of healthcare to inmates and inmate suicide.  

But California’s jails are also full and have themselves been reducing their inmate populations in recent years. It is estimated that if Brown transfers 20,000 prisoners to county jails, it would double their sentenced populations and potentially overwhelm the facilities.

Since making his proposal, Brown has encountered pushback from California sheriffs, who say that if the plan is approved, they will have to release additional inmates early to make way for state prisoners. Sheriffs also worry that state funding won’t cover the cost of housing the transferred inmates. Brown’s current budget proposal calls for $1.5 billion to go to counties for incarceration and other correctional costs.

Jails in 20 counties — including Sacramento, Placer, Yolo and El Dorado — are currently under court orders to release inmates when they become too crowded. Jails there often operate at or near capacity. Statewide, tens of thousands of inmates are released early from county jails each year because of overcrowding. The sheriff’s have not yet filed suit, but if push comes to shove, some industry observers expect the governor’s plan could see a legal challenge.

In 2007, Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers passed AB 900 to construct new jails and add 13,000 beds in California, but the state has so far failed to complete any of its proposed expansion projects due to lawsuits over environmental and financial concerns. The bill allocated $7.4 million in bonds to expand prisons and jails and add 53,000 extra beds, but so far, the state has only begun planning for construction of 8,400 beds.

Most of the expansion projects, which include building healthcare and reentry facilities in addition to adding beds, were only approved in late 2010.

In the meantime, Marin County officials have filed a lawsuit to block the construction of a new $356 million death row complex at San Quentin State Prison that would add 1,152 beds to the state prison system. The suit alleges that in 2009, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger improperly used a line-item veto to ignore budget control language on conditions for financing the project.

To add to San Quentin’s woes, Hospira Inc., the sole American manufacturer of an anesthetic used in lethal injections, announced in January that it would cease making the drug due to international constraints.

After a shortage of sodium thiopental delayed executions in California and Oklahoma last year, Hospira arranged to resume manufacturing the drug this winter in Italy, but the Italian authorities said they would not permit export of the drug if it would be used for capital punishment, pushing Hospira to permanently abandon sodium thiopental production.

Last fall, California and Arizona obtained shipments of sodium thiopental on the sly from England, but the British government has since refused to allow exports of drugs for use in capital punishment. Until California approves a substitute drug — likely pentobarbital, which is used in veterinary medicine and in legal human euthanasia in Oregon — it will need to suspend executions.

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