U.S. Supreme Court refuses to delay California prisoner releases

08/03/2013 12:00 AM

08/06/2013 10:27 AM

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected California's request to delay a federal order to reduce its prison population by nearly 10,000 inmates, leaving the state bracing for early inmate releases.

The ruling, by a divided court, was the latest in a series of setbacks for Gov. Jerry Brown in California's landmark prison crowding case. Even before the court's decision was announced, a reluctant administration started outlining how it might comply with the order.

In a status report filed with federal judges this week, prison officials said they are preparing to implement an expanded parole program for sick and elderly inmates, while also identifying inmates who may be eligible for credits for good behavior.

The administration said in the court filing that it is drafting notifications to send to victims and local law enforcement officials "to advise them that they may not be receiving the requisite period pre-release notice."

Meanwhile, prison administrators began admitting prisoners to the new California Health Care Facility in Stockton last month, and they said they will continue to shift prisoners there until the facility's 1,818 beds are filled in December.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation extended contracts to continue to house nearly 9,000 inmates out of state, and officials said they are considering contracting with county jails for additional bed space.

Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said prison officials do not know how many inmates might be released, or how many could be housed in other facilities.

"Basically what's going on right now is an exploration of that sliding scale," he said.

In its Thursday court filing, the administration said officials "continue to develop a court-ordered early release system, and estimate that the system will be finalized in approximately 15 days."

In a brief statement Friday, Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the department, said the state would pursue its appeal of the prison crowding case with the Supreme Court despite the court's denial of a stay. If the court does decide to consider the case, it almost certainly would not come before the end of the year.

"While California's stay request was denied (Friday) the state will pursue its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court so that the merits of the case can be considered without delay," Beard said in a prepared statement.

The Supreme Court's ruling was issued without explanation. In a biting dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia lamented the "terrible injunction" and a Supreme Court he said "vastly expands the Power of the Black Robe."

As a result of the ruling, Scalia said, California "must now release upon the public nearly 10,000 inmates convicted of serious crimes – about 1,000 for every city larger than Santa Ana."

Scalia was joined in dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas, while Justice Samuel Alito indicated he, too, would grant the state's application for a stay.

The ruling comes four years after a panel of federal judges found the health care in the California prison system so bad it is unconstitutional – primarily because of crowding – and just more than a month after the panel ordered the state to immediately begin releasing inmates to comply with a 2009 order that the prison population be reduced to 137.5 percent of capacity.

The nation's high court affirmed the prison reduction order once before, in 2011.

On Friday, the California Police Chiefs Association released a statement in which it said its chiefs were "dismayed" by the ruling.

In the statement, Covina Police Chief Kim Raney, president of the association, said the court "decided to place convicted criminals' concerns over the safety of California's communities and citizens."

Brown, a Democrat, did not comment Friday. The court's ruling and impending inmate releases will provide Republicans with an issue to seize on as the third-term governor enters a likely re-election bid next year.

In a statement on Friday, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who is preparing to challenge Brown, said that if Brown "chooses to disregard our safety and moves forward with early release, he will have failed his basic duty as governor and the crime increases that are bound to happen will rest on his shoulders."

In its request for a stay, the Brown administration argued conditions have improved dramatically in state prisons in recent years.

Among other measures, the administration cited its reduction of the prison population through prison realignment, in which the state shifted responsibility for certain low-level offenders from the prison system to counties in 2011.

Despite improvements, however, the state prison population remained above the court-imposed prison cap, and inmate advocates accused the administration of stalling.

"We filed our motion in 2006, so we're seven years of litigation, two trips to the Supreme Court later," said Donald Spector, director of the Prison Law Office, which represents the inmates in the case. "California's finally run out of legal avenues to try to stall the ultimate remedy."

Spector said, "They can press on with their appeal, but the odds don't look very good."

Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice and drug policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said in a prepared statement that the ruling "makes plain that state leaders can no longer avoid the urgent need to enact the kinds of reforms that will create a lasting and sustainable reduction in the number of people incarcerated in California and keep our communities safe."

Hopper criticized state policies he said "have resulted in California needlessly spending billions of dollars every year locking up far too many people who don't need to be behind bars to keep the public safe."

WHAT'S NEXT?

The Brown administration says it will "finalize" an early release program in about 15 days.

The administration will pursue its appeal. If the court hears the case, it likely wouldn't happen this year.

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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