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Prison politics: Jam-packed or alone


It’s cramped in here

JEFFREY BEARD, California’s prisons chief, boasts that the number of inmates in the state’s prisons has fallen by 43,000 since 2006. But unlike other states that have seen big drops, California’s hand was forced: in 2009 federal judges were so concerned by overcrowding that they ordered the state to cut prison occupancy to 137.5% of design capacity (at one point it exceeded 200%). The ruling has been upheld over the laments of officials, most recently by the Supreme Court on August 2nd. An appeal is pending.California has not reduced numbers simply by setting people free. Rather, it has sent lots of non-serious offenders to county jails instead of state prisons (a policy called “realignment”). To meet the court-decreed target by the end of the year, the state must find another 7,000 or so prisoners to offload, says Mr Beard. His department hopes to do this mainly through “capacity options”, such as dispatching prisoners to costly private lock-ups in other states.Officials worry that further releases may “cut into muscle rather than fat”, says Joan Petersilia of Stanford Law School. Crime has crept up in parts…

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