Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison lawyers went a little too far in their fight to end court monitoring of the state’s 33 overcrowded prisons and a federal judge issued a stern warning to take it back or face the consequences.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento gave the state five days to remove allegations from the court record that the court-appointed Special Master Mathew Lopes acted unethically, or prove the claims.
This began January 28 when Deputy Attorney General Debbie J. Vorous filed papers objecting to the latest 609-page report by Lopes on prison conditions. The state wants to end court oversight of prison conditions, even though it has not met the goal of reducing overcrowding from nearly 200 percent of capacity at its worst to the mandated level of 137.5 percent of capacity by June.
Lopes told Karlton the state had not met the objectives and recommended against the courts giving up control.
Vorous responded, “Perhaps the reason is because there is no incentive for the special master to be objective in this case. To date, the state has paid the special master, his Rhode Island law firm, and his team of monitors and experts nearly $48 million dollars.”
That set off Karlton.
In a two-page order Wednesday he said, “This court takes very seriously any allegation of unethical conduct.”
“However, the court can only be dismayed by the cavalier manner in which defendants, in objections signed by their attorney of record, level a smear against the character and reputation of the Special Master, without any apparent regard for whether the attack is consistent with defense counsel’s obligations…” he said.
He gave the state lawyers five days to show why they should not be sanctioned or in the alternative remove the offending comments from the court record.
California’s Prison Record
Karlton’s case began 23 years ago with claims that the state prison mental health care was so bad it violated constitutional protections. A similar suit, filed in San Francisco a decade later, alleged that health care was so poor it also violated constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Years of legal fighting, promises by the state to reform and changes in prison administration, produced little change.
Ultimately, the courts took over the oversight of reforms and efforts to end overcrowded conditions, which had become so severe inmates were housed in triple bunks in cafeterias, gyms, day rooms and classrooms.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in San Francisco found inmates routinely died needlessly due to poor or inadequate health care.
It was determined that overcrowding was a major contributor to the physical and mental health care problems. A special three-judge panel was appointed to determine a suitable level of prison population.
Karlton, Henderson and 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt determined that a level of 137.5 percent of capacity, roughly 110,000 inmates, would be an acceptable level and ordered it reached by June 2013.
The state has not yet met that goal, but has nonetheless asked to be released from court control and monitoring.
Case: Coleman v. Brown, 90-cv-520LKK (mental health care)
Also, see: Plata v. Brown, C01-1351TEH (physical health care)