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January 8, 2013

As Plata ruling welcomed, California seeks modification of prison population reduction order

This front-page article in today's Sacramento Bee, headlined "Halt in inmate releases sought," reports on a significant development in the multi-year -- is it now multi-decade? -- litigation over prison population in California. Here are the details:

Claiming that the state has made substantial progress in solving its prison overcrowding problem, California officials asked a federal court late Monday to dismiss its requirements for huge reductions in inmate populations.

Gov. Jerry Brown's administration, filing court documents just two hours before the court-ordered deadline to explain how the state will reduce inmate populations, said progress made so far is sufficient to warrant the federal court withdrawing its order.   It also said the court-ordered reductions could needlessly force the state to release dangerous or violent inmates.

"The overcrowding and health care conditions cited by this Court to support its population reduction order are now a distant memory," the court papers state.  "California's vastly improved prison health care system now provides inmates with superior care that far exceeds the minimum requirements of the Constitution.

"In the years since the court issued the current population cap order, the state has dramatically reduced the prison population, significantly increased capacity through construction, and implemented a myriad of improvements that transformed the medical and mental health care systems."

A three-judge federal panel had ordered the state to cut population to 137.5 percent of capacity, down from nearly double the prison capacity, and said such reductions were necessary to maintain proper physical and mental health care in the 33 adult prisons.

But Brown's administration said in papers filed late Monday that it has achieved sufficient reductions already through a series of efforts.   "Therefore, this Court must vacate the 137.5 percent population cap order issued when it was believed that quality health care could not be provided at a higher population density," the state contended.

"The population in the state's 33 prisons has been reduced by over 24,000 inmates since October 2011 when public safety realignment went into effect, by more than 36,000 inmates compared to the 2008 population in the record at the evidentiary hearing, and by nearly 42,000 inmates since 2006 when plaintiffs moved to convene the three-judge court....

The court filing was strategically timed.  Facing a Monday deadline at midnight, corrections officials originally scheduled a telephone conference call for this morning to discuss the issue.  But late Monday they scrapped that and announced the governor would hold a press conference this morning to trumpet the effort.   Brown has been at the forefront of inmate reduction efforts since taking office.  The state prison system has been under siege for decades from prisoner lawsuits and federal court orders that have found the state was holding inmates in unsafe conditions.

A year ago, facing unprecedented orders from the federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court to take action, the Brown administration pushed through its "realignment" plan to shift low-level, nonviolent offenders to the counties. Since then, prison populations have fallen to about 150 percent of capacity, a level still above the court-ordered mandate but one that officials have said they could manage to further reduce.

Monday night, state officials claimed the 137.5 percent limit "cannot be achieved without the early release of inmates serving time for serious or violent felonies."

As stressed in the title of this post, all the rulings with orders for reductions in the California prison population coming from lower courts and upheld by the Supreme Court indicated that California could seek future modifications of the order if and when it took significant steps to remedy the extreme overcrowding problems resulting in unconstitutional prison conditions.  Even without reading the new court papers filed by California, I can say without reservation that the state has taken significant steps in response to the federal courts orders; in turn, this request for a modification in the order seems fully justifiable.

Of course, whether federal courts will embrace or resist this new state to modify existing prison population reduction orders is a distinct question from whether the state's modification request is justifiable.  And it is hard to make a prediction on this front without reading all the papers filed already and sure to be filed later in this litigation.  (That said, I have an inkling some folks may be eager to comment on what has transpired since the SCOTUS Plata ruling without waiting for a chance to read all the latest and future filings.)

January 8, 2013 at 02:00 PM | Permalink


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What a lieing sack of crap. What needs to happen is brown and his cabinet's arrest for contempt of court.

Since legally they still have not followed the court order. They were ordered to reduce calif prison pop. not move it to jail.

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 8, 2013 3:25:18 PM

To put it in slightly different terms than Mr. Smith, CA has now created multiple versions of its original problem in its counties and is looking again to push the rest off into private prisons around the country, with a virtual guarantee that it will be back to the future itself before the decade is out. That's indeed significant, but the word is also frequently used for tumors.

Posted by: mike connelly | Jan 8, 2013 4:06:38 PM

So you think he's Not a lieing sack of shit?

i'll let the record speak for itself!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 9, 2013 9:48:17 AM

I seek help with the remodification process in Calif. A friend will be sentenced 10/18/2013. Though 6th. Amend. protects incompetent court appt. counsel. Breakdown of communication between client & counsel prevailed. Lawyers are welcomed to contact me. Respectfully submitted. JRB

Posted by: John Robert Browning | Oct 17, 2013 11:43:49 PM

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