California wins two-year extension in fight over inmate releases

02/10/2014 11:15 PM

10/22/2014 2:01 PM

A panel of federal judges Monday gave California two more years to cut its prison population to a level originally ordered in 2009, a move that once again gives the state more breathing room to comply, but also establishes a non-negotiable deadline.

Under Monday’s order, the state has until Feb. 28, 2016, to reduce the inmate population in its 34 adult prisons – designed to hold 81,574 inmates – to 137.5 percent of its current design capacity. State prisons now house roughly 117,600 inmates. The order requires the number to be reduced to 112,164 and bars the state from sending inmates to out-of-state prisons to get to that level.

The order essentially adopts a proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration that promised the judges the state would not seek further delays or court appeals if an extension was granted.

The order comes from a specially created three-judge court consisting of 9th U.S. Circuit Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt, Judge Thelton E. Henderson of the San Francisco-based Northern District of California, and Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of the Sacramento-based Eastern District of California. The panel found in 2009 that overcrowding in California’s adult prisons has pulled the quality of medical and mental health care for inmates well below constitutional standards.

The three judges acknowledged they were “reluctant” to grant yet another extension of an order originally issued in August 2009. But they added that promises from the state not to further appeal a case that has twice been to the U. S. Supreme Court will help achieve the “durable solution” to overcrowding that has harmed the state’s ability to provide a level of medical and mental health care to inmates that is not “cruel and unusual.”

“This should bring an end to defendants’ continual appeals and requests for modifications of this Court’s orders,” the judges wrote.

The order is a win for Brown, who is expected to seek re-election and already is facing criticism over his “realignment” program that shifted responsibility for nonviolent, low-level offenders from prisons to county jails.

In January 2013, Brown declared that the state had done enough to reduce its inmate population and asked the court to return oversight of the state’s prisons to California, something the judges rejected.

On Monday, after more than a year of intense legal fights, the governor indicated he was pleased with the decision.

“It is encouraging that the Three-Judge Court has agreed to a two-year extension,” Brown said in a statement. “The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer.”

The order also is a victory for Senate Democrats who championed the idea last summer of restricting prison expansion in favor of sentencing reform and enhanced rehabilitation programs to reduce the number of inmates, something Brown initially opposed.

“I’m very pleased,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said in an interview from Washington, D.C. “It’s what we’ve been pushing for since August.

“It was very clear back during the summer that the choices were pretty untenable: release people early or spend hundreds of millions of dollars to lease jail space outside our existing prisons.”

But the order is a setback for attorneys for the state’s mentally and medically ill inmates, who have argued that immediate population reductions are needed to combat high suicide rates, deaths from lax treatment, and related chronic staffing shortages in the prisons’ medical and mental health treatment units.

“We’re disappointed that the court didn’t order the state to comply with the Supreme Court’s order more quickly,” said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, which has been in the forefront of the fight to improve the lot of inmates. “The conditions are still overcrowded and it’s still cruel and unusual punishment.”

Specter, whose staff and co-counsel had won a string of legal victories over the state until Monday, said no decision had been made yet on whether an appeal will be filed. Any appeal from the three-judge court goes directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The deadline extension “is dangerous and unjustified,” declared Michael Bien, lead counsel for the inmates. He cited a recent series of hearings before Karlton on the handling of mentally ill inmates as proof that “the violations (of previous court orders) are so extreme that it is dangerous to do this. People are dying all the time. I hope the state takes this undeserved opportunity to improve the unconstitutional conditions that persist, but there’s no assurance it will.”

Others warned that the judges’ order eventually could increase crime.

“This court order is tragic; it turns our justice system upside down,” state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said in a statement.

“Once released, these dangerous felons will threaten our local communities, where residents are already suffering from increased crime and where police agencies are overburdened,” added Nielsen, a former chair of the state Board of Prison Terms.

The judges said the reductions to be achieved over the next two years can come from immediately increasing good time credits for nonviolent, second-strike offenders and minimum-custody inmates, expanding parole for medically incapacitated inmates, creating new rules to allow for parole hearings for inmates 60 and older who have served at least 25 years, and from other means.

The panel also noted that Brown’s administration has agreed to consider establishing a commission to reform state sentencing laws and wrote that the extension will allow for hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds to be directed at a “recidivism reduction fund” rather than housing more inmates.

But, an obviously agitated Bien said: “There is nothing in the order mandating a revision of the state’s criminal justice policies. It’s just maybe this and maybe that.”

The judges also indicated that it will not allow California to increase its use of out-of-state prisons, where 8,900 inmates currently are housed and where the state had said it would send many more if ordered to immediately meet the population cut.

“This solution is neither durable nor desirable,” the judges wrote of using more out-of-state prison cells. “It would result in thousands of prisoners being incarcerated hundreds or thousands of miles from the support of their families, and in hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent on long-lasting prison reform being spent instead on temporarily housing prisoners in out-of-state facilities.”

The judges have noted repeatedly that they take a dim view of the state’s foot-dragging in complying with their orders, and in Monday’s order they wrote that California officials have failed to adopt any of the measures the judges have approved, other than the realignment plan Brown enacted to reduce prison populations by tens of thousands of inmates.

They made clear in their order that they expect the state to meet certain deadlines and said they would appoint a “compliance officer” to ensure it does so.

That officer will make sure the state reduces the inmate population to 143 percent of design capacity by June 30 (116,651 inmates); to 141.5 percent by Feb. 28, 2015 (115,427 inmates); and to 137.5 percent a year after that (112,164 inmates).

The compliance officer will have authority to release the necessary number of inmates to meet those levels if the state misses any of the benchmarks, and the judges conceded that they should have acted more forcefully and sooner to deal with prison overcrowding.

“We recognize that these measures should have been adopted much earlier, that (inmates’) lawyers have made unceasing efforts to obtain immediate relief on behalf of their clients, and that California prisoners deserve far better treatment than they have received from (the state) over the past four and a half years,” the judges wrote. “Similarly, California’s citizens have incurred far greater costs, both financial and otherwise, as a result of (the state’s) heretofore unyielding resistance to compliance with this court’s orders.”

The appointment of a compliance officer is the only positive part of the order from Bien’s point of view.

“To that extent,” he said, “it represents the judges’ frustration with the state’s defiance and their reluctance, for whatever reason, to utilize their powers of contempt.”

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