SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The state can safely house some maximum-security inmates in lower-level prisons, a development that could save taxpayers money, according to a University of California study obtained by The Associated Press.
The 18-month study by five criminology experts comes as a new state law sends thousands of lower-level offenders to local jails instead of state prisons.
The shift leaves state prisons housing the most violent, serious or sex offenders.
However, the state could benefit if the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has flexibility to move more high-risk offenders to medium- or minimum-security prisons that will soon have extra space, said Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate.
"The good news for Californians is that I think that means you have to build fewer high-security prisons, probably," Cate told the AP. "If the science says that we can have more inmates in lower-level settings safely, then that helps us with realignment because we're able to more fully utilize our lower-level prisons. I know that's what the study says. How much of that we believe we can safely adopt is what we're still working on."
The 160-page study, obtained by the AP Thursday, was commissioned by the department and led by UC experts from the Berkeley, Davis, Irvine and Los Angeles campuses.
Cate said he expects the department to propose "modest" changes to its policies as a result, and there are no estimates yet
"I believe we still need to have construction in California," though he said it is unclear if that will mean building new maximum-security facilities or converting more existing lower-security prisons so they can house higher-risk inmates.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, in a report last month, predicted that the state will face a "mismatch" between its prisons and its population once the realignment of inmates is complete. Unless there are changes, maximum-security prisons might remain dangerously overcrowded while lower-level prisons have extra space.
The department would be short of space for 12,900 high-security inmates in four years, the legislative analyst said, using the department's own population projections. Meanwhile, there would be enough excess capacity at lower-level men's prisons to house 13,200 inmates.
The expert report shows that much of the department's security classification system works well, Cate said. However, it found that high-notoriety inmates or inmates serving sentences of life without the chance of parole are no more likely to automatically be a safety or escape risk than other inmates facing long prison terms. Currently, the department requires that those inmates be housed in a maximum-security (Level 4) prison, but the study shows many could be given a lower security classification.
The current policies "appear to 'trap' many well-behaving inmates into higher housing levels," according to the report. Inmates' ages and other underlying factors are a better indicator of risk than whether their crime received a lot of public attention or they are ineligible for parole, the experts said. Older inmates in particular can be safely moved to lower-security prisons, they recommended.
The experts also say that inmates on the borderline between security designations can often be safely housed at the lower security level. For instance, an inmate with a lower maximum-security rating could be a candidate for housing in a medium-security prison.
They also found a behavioral benefit to moving more inmates to lower-security prisons: "People who are in Level 4 prisons act out more than people who are in Level 3 prisons, because they're in a Level 4 prison," Cate said, summarizing the experts' findings. "I think there's just a different expectation at the institution among the inmates about where they are."
Inmates' security classifications are based on two different scores based on factors including the age when they were first arrested, the age when they entered prison, the length of their current sentence, their criminal history, how they behave in prison, and any gang affiliation.