Debra J. Saunders

The good news: Last year, California's homicide rate dropped to its lowest level since 1966. Violent crimes were down from the year before.

The bad news: Federal judges and California lawmakers juggling to run a state government despite a huge budget deficit are making decisions that threaten to dismantle a system that has made California a safer place to live. If they get their way, today's state prison population of 162,000 inmates could drop by more than 40,000 within two years.

Are you afraid yet?

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 2009 three-judge panel ruling that ordered California to reduce its prison population by some 33,000 inmates in two years to alleviate overcrowding. The problem: No one elected the federal judges, yet they seem to think they are lawmakers. The three judges ignored improvements in prison medical and mental health care -- the basis for the Plata and Coleman lawsuits that spawned the decision -- and then decided that the remedy for poor services in the past is to reduce the prison population in the future.

The state already had begun reducing the number of inmates -- by 11,000 inmates over five years -- with changes to the parole system. In addition, Gov. Jerry Brown has been pushing for a plan to transfer some offenders to county jails -- which should cut the state prison population by 35,000.

It may look like a wash, but it isn't.

Corrections chief Matt Cate noted there are many "unknowns." What if a lawsuit stops the construction of the Stockton medical facility? The Plata decision "reduces our flexibility."

The biggest "unknown," you should know, is that the Legislature hasn't passed a bill to fund Brown's plan to shift some costs and services to local government. As the spokeswoman for Assembly GOP Leader Connie Conway explained, Republicans think the measure "puts public safety at risk." Conway looks at Fresno, where car thieves are let out of jail within days of their arrest, and she sees a recipe for more crime.

Before this Supreme Court ruling, Republican lawmakers feared that the Brown plan would put low-level -- and some not-so-low-level -- offenders out on the street.

With the Plata decision, however, the Brown plan has a new wrinkle. The three judges' order involves 33 state prisons. The Brown plan would transfer jurisdiction for some 9,000 low-level offenders heretofore housed in conservation camps and out-of-state contracted facilities. Add the two together and you get: 42,000 inmates, 33,000 of whom violated their way into the big house.

Debra J. Saunders

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