State Wins Two More Years to Cut Prison Crowding

In the years-long battle between Gov. Jerry Brown and a three-judge panel over whether California could meet the court’s deadline for reducing prison overcrowding, it was the judges who blinked.

The judges agreed Monday to give Brown two years to comply with its June 2011 order that the prison population be brought down to 137.5 percent of its design capacity.  Originally, the court expected that level to be met by Dec. 31, 2013.  But they got plenty of concessions in return.

Brown repeatedly asked that the deadline be extended.  The judges repeatedly rebuffed his request.

In September, they reluctantly granted another 30 days. Monday’s order gives the state an additional two years, with a promise not to appeal any more orders and to reconsider current sentencing practices.

The long-running battle stems from two lawsuits, each over a decade old, that challenge prison medical care and mental health care, which have been found so poor they amounted to unconstitutional cruel punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Overcrowded conditions were found to be the root cause of the poor care at a time when the prisons were nearly 200 percent of intended capacity.  Inmates slept in gyms, cafeterias and any empty space that could be found, often in bunk beds three-men high.  Currently, state prison officials report roughly 121,500 inmates, about 141.3 percent of capacity.

The court set a goal of 137.5 percent and let the state figure out how to hit the goal by the deadline or they might exercise their authority to release inmates.

But the judges got something in return: A pledge from Brown that the prison would meet the goal by February 28, 2016 for in-state inmates and would not increase the current population from 8,900 inmates who have been farmed out to other state prisons.

The state also promised to develop a sustainable plan for prison population reduction reform and “will consider” creation of a commission to recommend reforms to state sentencing law.

The state also promised not to appeal the two-year extension order or any subsequent order needed to implement the planned population cuts or any order by the compliance officer appointed by the court.

The state promised to get the population down to 143 percent by June 30, 23014, to 141.5 percent by February 28, 2015 and to the final goal by February 16, 2016.

The state intends to comply with the order by contracting for added county jail space, private prisons, community correction facilities and through newly created programs to reduce sentencing laws and increase credits for non-violent, second-strike and minimum custody inmates.

The state agreed to create a new parole determination process that allows non-violent and second-strike inmates parole consideration after they serve half their sentence.

The order was signed by Judges Stephen Reinhardt, of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Thelton Henderson, of San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento.

Case:  Coleman v. Brown, No. 90-520LKK

 

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