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Large-Scale Prisoner Releases Possible, Police Chief Concerned

Both citizens and police officers would be in danger if state and federal initiatives to release at least 27,000 prisoners are passed, Chief Melekian says

Published on Sunday, June 21, 2009 | 9:59 pm

Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian told Pasadena Now he is concerned that tens of thousands of  prisoners may be released back into society early due to both state and federal initiatives and that could lead to unprecedented spikes in the rate of violent crime statewide.

The California prison system could possibly release up to a third of its current prison population of 170,000 inmates out into the streets in the next three years. Though it is not known exactly how many current inmates consider Pasadena home, Melekian said during a recent meeting with members of the press that about 25 to 33 percent of state inmates are from Los Angeles County.

Such initiatives would address the state’s problem on overcrowded prisons that are now operating at close to 200 percent of design capacity as well as save $803 million to $906 million each year, according to a federal ruling issued by three judges last February.

However, the potential monetary savings do not justify the potential risk to citizens, Melekian says. He noted that an estimated 70 percent of released prisoners reoffend, thus putting them back into the same system. In addition, costs of trials, investigations, and property damage could be staggering.

Californians would also be in potential danger if an influx of criminals with histories of violence are suddenly released into the streets, Melekian said.

U.S. District Court Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton and Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt ruled in a 10-page federal decision that there is no other choice but to release tens of thousands of prisoners early.

“The evidence is compelling that there is no relief other than a prisoner-release order that will remedy the unconstitutional prison conditions,” states the ruling.

The verdict is the result of a two-year-old class action lawsuit filed on behalf of California prisoners by inmates Ralph Coleman and Marciano Plata. Their lawsuit charges that the state failed to provide sufficient medical and mental healthcare to prisoners due to overcrowding, which they allege violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

The state of California is not willing to immediately release thousands of prisoners. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he and other state officials are willing to appeal Coleman and Plata’s lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary to prevent mass release of state inmates.

Melekian said police officers could be at risk along with citizens in the event of mass prisoner releases, noting that many shootings of law enforcement officials are committed by parolees.

“I think there is a collateral issue there about the nature of three strikes and the desperation that some people feel not to be returned to prison,” Melekian said.

Under the “three strikes” law, people convicted of three felonies in their lifetime are remanded to state prison for the remainder of their lives.

Melekian also noted that despite the possible ramifications, it seems that mass inmate release is inevitable given the condition of both the state’s economy and the overcrowded prison system.

“The fact of the matter is, the only other solution …  that could have some short-term results is the transfer of prisoners to …  facilities in other states that have capacity,” Melekian said. “But…there is a cost associated with that and you don’t necessarily deal with the budget issues.”

The only alternative Melekian said he envisions is the construction of additional prisons to alleviate the overcrowding. However, he noted that the financial condition of the state, plus the amount of time required to plan, approve, and build new correctional facilities, makes this virtually impossible.

Originally, the state Department of Corrections expected to lose $400 million of its budget due to state’s current money woes. However, that figure has now spiked to $1.5 billion, which could make early estimates of how many prisoners might be released low, Melekian said.

State Senator Carol Liu is concerned about the implications of such plans, and is monitoring any possible cuts regarding public safety very closely, she said through her spokesman Robert Oakes.

“The state is in a desperate fiscal situation and needs to look for all potential ways to reduce spending. Nonetheless, public safety must remain paramount,” Liu said in a prepared statement. “I expect the Governor to explain this budget proposal in detail and discuss how we can protect our communities and our citizens while also allowing offenders to leave prison early. I look forward to working with local elected officials and my legislative colleagues as we address the deepening fiscal crisis.”

Regarding the state prisoners’ class action lawsuit that might in part mandate early prisoner releases, California Attorney General Jerry Brown has said in a news release that he feels federal government is intruding on the rights of states.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown has said in a news release regarding the state prisoners’ class action lawsuit that might in part mandate early prisoner releases that he feels federal government is intruding on the rights of states.

Brown said the judges’ ruling “is a blunt instrument that does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals.”

Officials of cities located within California have also expressed concerns that the possibility of inmate release will generate additional crime and impact safety services, especially now that local governments throughout the state are facing their own budget challenges due to the economic meltdown.

Burbank Deputy City Manager Justin Hess says the city has not mapped out plans to specifically address the expected influx of released prisoners in the locality but strongly stresses that Burbank always views safety as its number one priority.

“Obviously, if we see an increase of crime as a result of this proposal occurring, we will address it aggressively,” he said.

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