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Prison-bed reduction milestone reached

March 2, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
A milestone has been reached in the effort to reduce the inmate population in California's state prisons. But critics say the solution is creating new problems.

The iconic images of California's prison system at the height of overcrowding showed rows of inmates double- and triple-bunked in what used to be common areas like gymnasiums and classrooms. Rehabilitation and counseling took a back seat.

With facilities brimming at 200 percent of capacity, federal judges declared conditions unconstitutional and ordered immediate reductions.

"It symbolized, I think, a system that was so crowded, it could not work effectively or efficiently," said Matthew Cate, California Corrections Dept. secretary.

Friday a significant milestone was reached: an end to that practice. Those beds, nearly 20,000 across the 33 institutions, are finally gone, the last dismantled just days ago. Officials credit Governor Jerry Brown's "re-alignment" plan, which made some less-serious crimes eligible for county jail sentences, rather than state prison.

"I think we're going to see a safer, less expensive, more effective prison system," said Cate.

All inmates are now in actual cells and can participate in programs that will help them prepare for life on the outside.

"Now we're able to watch TV in our cells and do everything as far as the program is supposed to be," said inmate Gary Richards.

But some crime victims groups say the reduction is nothing to celebrate, that shifting inmates just transfers the state's problems to the local level.

Some county jails were already overcrowded before the governor's plan took effect.

"Some of these folks may even get released early. Our fear is that we're just going to start seeing crime rates increased and more horrible crime occurring," said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance.

The reduction in the number of inmates, though, isn't enough. California must shed another 17,000 inmates by June 2013 or face a court order for early releases.


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