Lawmakers May Be in Contempt Over Prisons

September 17, 2009 8:41:06 PM PDT
On Friday Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., will find out if he or other public officials could go to jail, for contempt of court, for failing to reduce prison overcrowding.California will be trying the patience of three federal judges when they submit a plan that will reduce its inmate population by a number far short of the court-ordered 40,000. State lawyers are still putting the details together, so they don't know how close they'll get, but everyone knows anything short of the 40,000 would risk possible jail time for state leaders.

"Theoretically, the three-judge panel could hold the governor, the named public officials and the state in contempt of court," says ABC7 legal analyst Dean Johnson.

Sources say the overcrowding-relief plan will include: building more prisons, some parole reform the Legislature passed last week and the use of executive authority to commute the sentences of illegal immigrant prisoners, who will then be turned over to ICE.

Without acknowledging the plan falls short, the Corrections Department says it could jeopardize public safety if the inmate population is reduced by too much.

"Our obligation is to meet the requirement of the courts right now to show what California's plan is. And the courts are going to have to decide what they feel is appropriate or not appropriate," says Gordon Hinkle from the California Department of Corrections.

The fear is the federal judges will find the plan inadequate, considering the prison overcrowding lawsuit has dragged on for years with no resolution from the legislature.

"If worse comes to worse, we actually could see early release. It's not unprecedented in civil rights matter involving prison overcrowding and unconstitutional punishment," says Johnson.

Prison reform is such a political hot potato, crime victims groups say lawmakers purposefully drag their feet.

"I think they do want the judges to make the decision, so therefore, they can save face by saying that 'We did not order the releases, the judges did,'" says Harriet Salarno with Crime Victims United.

Before the three-judge panel rules on that plan, the Corrections Department hopes to win a different lawsuit now before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing the state should have control over their own prisons, not the feds.

A footnote on Harriet Salarno's daughter:
Salarno's daughter was murdered 30 years ago this month. Catina Rose Salarno was 18 when she left her San Francisco home for college. The night before her classes began, the boyfriend she had left behind, showed up at University of Pacific in Stockton and shot and killed her. Steven Burns was convicted of murder and is still in prison.

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