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Law Calling For Inmate Relocation Could Influence Overcrowding Case

Publication Date: 
April 07, 2011
Source: 
Daily Journal
Author: 
Emily Green

Professor Robert Weisberg spoke with Emily Green of the Daily Journal on whether new legislation, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown to relocate low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails, could influence a federal judicial order before the U.S. Supreme Court which is seeking reductions in the state's prison population.

Legislation signed Monday night by Gov. Jerry Brown aimed at bridging a state budget shortfall by relocating thousands of low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails could influence the outcome of a federal judicial order seeking reductions in California's prison population.

That case, now before the U.S. Supreme Court, hinges on whether an order from a specially created three-judge panel overseeing the state's prison system is enforceable. The 2009 order requires California to reduce its prison population by roughly 40,000 prisoners by 2011 in order to alleviate overcrowding. California now incarcerates approximately 163,000 inmates, roughly double what state prisons were collectively designed to hold.

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Technically, the Supreme Court only rules on a case as it was presented and doesn't take into consideration new evidence, said Robert Weisberg, a co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. But he said the facts at play in the Plata case are atypical and that the court might shift course.

"This is a very unusual case," Weisberg said. "The Supreme Court could do whatever it wants because it's the Supreme Court."

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"The plan could conceivably influence the three-judge court case, but everything is up in the air right now," Weisberg said.

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A remote possibility exists that the Supreme Court justices could also ask for briefing from both sides in the lawsuit about the significance of the inmate realignment legislation in the case, said Michael W. McConnell, director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center.

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If nothing else, realignment could solve one quandary, said Weisberg, with the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

"If you kick [the inmates] out of state prison and put them in county jail, you're helping the state solve a legal problem, if not any other problem."