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The State Prison Mess

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Earlier this month, three federal judges -- Stephen Reinhardt, Lawrence Karlton and Thelton Henderson -- ordered the release of more than 40,000 of California's 160,000 inmates. No lie: They claimed that releasing one-quarter of state inmates would not have "a meaningful adverse impact on public safety."

They also wrote, "Evidence shows that mentally ill inmates who are released do not, by virtue of their mental illness, present any higher risk than other released inmates."

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These three must live in an alternate universe -- one where a quarter of California inmates, many of them mentally ill, can be freed and no one gets hurt in a meaningful way.

It helps if you ignore the fact that California's violent crimes have fallen by about a third since California passed "three strikes" legislation in 1994 -- as the inmate population grew by 50,000.

As for the judges' contention that the state can release mentally ill inmates to no ill effect on public safety: All I can say is that it helps if you don't read a 2008 report commissioned by the Department of Justice on the California parole system. It found that parolees with a record of mental health problems have a 52 percent higher risk of committing the most serious violent offenses than other inmates.

Those who argue for releasing tens of thousands of prisoners may style themselves as realists, but they live in a dream world.

As I write this, scolds have been bashing Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Baldwin Vista, because she reportedly pared back legislation to shave $1.2 billion from the state prison budget. The bill passed 21-19 in the Senate. It's part of follow-up legislation on the budget deal enacted with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bass is expected to offer a separate bill to create a Sentencing Commission to reduce the prison population. That plan, Sentencing Commission supporters argue, may kill it -- not because of opposition from the frequently vilified GOP, but because 16 Assembly Dems are running for higher office and do not want to appear soft on crime by voting for a commission. (Bass spokesperson Shannon Murphy, by the way, insists that Bass wants a commission.)

Here's the thing: A Sentencing Commission doesn't have anything to do with the budget bill, as its creation would not save the state a dime in the next two years.

Besides, the $1.2 billion in savings from reducing the prison population, as promised by Schwarzenegger and the Legislature, was never going to happen. The deal was based on the prison system reducing the inmate population by 27,300 inmates and saving an estimated $49,000 per year per prisoner. But the incremental savings for each discharged prisoner is expected to come in at about $22,000, according to state corrections spokesman Seth Unger.

Now, I'm not saying that the state should not try to reduce the number of people in prison. Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, introduced a bill that would allow GPS monitoring for qualified nonviolent offenders. Unger makes a strong case for reducing low-level parole violations, as there is "not much public safety benefit" in re-incarcerating people for terms of three or four months for a minor slip. Readmission entails expensive medical, dental and mental health tests. Bass supports reducing sentences for inmates who complete rehab programs.

One last note: It's true, California prisons are officially overcrowded and running at 190 percent capacity. But that's only because 100 percent capacity means one inmate per cell and single bunks in dormitories.

Now, I don't know many parents who are in a rush to free prisoners so that inmates can get their own room.

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