Thousands of California inmates can thank the Constitution for the present they were delivered Monday morning.
California's jam-packed prison population will undergo some major thinning, courtesy of a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court ruled that California must cut its prison population by tens of thousands in order to improve health care for more serious offenders.
The ruling calls for clearing out roughly a fourth of the inmates now in the state's prisons.
Over the past five years, both for legal and budgetary reasons, the state has shifted about 9,000 prison inmates to county jails.
That's almost the same number of inmates statewide who have local ties, and are paroled to San Diego County each year.
The Supreme Court case, decided by a 5-4 vote, adds to our public safety and financial issues. The court ruled that the Constitution required the state to carry no more than 110,000 inmates in order to provide adequate health care for California's prisoners.
"We've known that this day might come," said San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis, in response to the ruling.
She said the high court is expected to give the state great latitude in managing the release program over a two-year timeline, balancing the mandate to de-populate the prison system with measures that address public safety concerns.
"San Diego is ahead of the curve, we have been working on re-entry issues and we are a model for the state," Dumanis noted.
"We can do it better, more efficiently, and less expensively. But we have to have the cost paid for by the state, because it's the state's obligations."
The Supreme Court ruling said California prison overcrowding has caused "needless suffering and death".
California currently houses more than 142,000 inmates across 33 prisons. The ruling will require the state to release upwards of 32,000 convicted felons.
The justices say that number should be reduced to about 110,000.
In the past week alone, there have been riots at three men's prisons, one resulting in several serious injuries and pepper spray fired by guards.
Only non-violent, non-sex offenders sentenced on "non-serious" charges with three or fewer years remaining would be eligible for transfer to county jails and releases on parole.
There's hope among local law enforcement officials that community-based, re-entry programs such as Second Chance will receive state funding to help keep parolees out of a revolving-door cycle.
But so far, Sacramento has allocated nothing for local jails, probation or rehabilitation.
"So where's the savings going to come from to put the savings back into the local counties to support this?" asks Second Chance president Scott Silverman. "No one's answered that question yet. It's like saying, 'Let's get something done, stopping there, and walking out of the room."
It took the state two years to reimburse San Diego County for the cost of the first of some 700 early-release inmates who have gone through re-entry programs here.
"The state can't turn to local government and say, 'You do our job and you have to pay for it, too," Dumanis said. "We're willing to do their job if they want to pay for it."
Meantime, a new law that realigns the state's corrections, rehabilitation and parole programs is yet to be funded, and raises legal issues that might wind up in court.
Despite the pending release, California's prison system will still be carrying thousands more people than the system was designed for.