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February 11, 2014

Federal judges give California two additional years to deal with prison population problems

As reported in this AP article, "federal judges on Monday gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap, the latest step in a long-running lawsuit aimed at improving inmate medical care."  Here is more about the latest chapter in the long-running federal litigation that made it to the Supreme Court a few years ago and that continues to impact California's criminal justice system in profound ways:

The order from the three-judge panel delayed an April deadline to reduce the prison population to about 112,000 inmates. California remains more than 5,000 inmates over a limit set by the courts, even though the state has built more prison space and used some private cells.

"It is even more important now for defendants to take effective action that will provide a long-term solution to prison overcrowding, as, without further action, the prison population is projected to continue to increase and health conditions are likely to continue to worsen," the judges said in a five-page opinion scolding the state for more than four years of delay.

California has reduced its prison population by about 25,000 inmates during the past two years, primarily through a law that sends lower-level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons. It also has spent billions of dollars on new medical facilities and staff, including opening an $839 million prison medical facility in Stockton last fall.

Yet in its latest ruling, the special panel of judges tasked with considering the legal battle involving overcrowding said the state has continually failed to implement any of the other measures approved by the panel and the Supreme Court that would have safely reduced the prison population and alleviated unconstitutional conditions involving medical and mental health care. The judges said the delays have cost taxpayers money while causing inmates to needlessly suffer.

However, immediately enforcing the population cap would simply prompt the state to move thousands more inmates to private prisons in other states without solving the long-term crowding problem, the judges said. Given that choice, they adopted a proposal outlined by Gov. Jerry Brown's administration that it can reach the population cap by the end of February 2016 through steps that include expanding a Stockton medical facility to house about 1,100 mentally ill inmates and freeing more than 2,000 inmates who are elderly, medically incapacitated, or who become eligible for parole because of accelerated good-time credits.

The judges said the state also has agreed to consider more population-reduction reforms in the next two years, including the possible establishment of a commission to recommend reforms of penal and sentencing laws.

Brown said the ruling was encouraging. "The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer," he said in a statement.

Brown's administration said the alternative would have been to spend up to $20 million during the fiscal year that ends June 30 and up to $50 million next fiscal year to lease enough additional cells to meet the court order. With the delay, Brown said the state can spend $81 million next fiscal year for rehabilitation programs that would otherwise be spent to house inmates.

Inmates' attorneys had wanted the judges to require the state to meet the population cap by May. "We're very disappointed," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that represented inmates in the crowding lawsuit. "We believe that there are substantial constitutional violations continuing right now, which result in prisoners suffering and dying because of prison overcrowding."...

Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen, who once headed the state parole board, called the court order "tragic" and said it would endanger public safety. He blamed Brown, a Democrat expected to seek re-election this year, and the court for what he called a "disastrous new system that will result in the early release of many serious and violent inmates." The state should instead increase capacity in prisons and jails while investing in rehabilitation and early intervention programs, Nielsen said in a statement.

UPDATE: This Los Angeles Times article suggests that this latest federal court order might grease the path toward California finally creating a sentencing commission. Here is how the article begins:

Talk of a sentencing commission to review whom California sends to prison and for how long helped Gov. Jerry Brown win a two-year grace period from federal judges who want crowding reduced to a safe level.  But there is no official move by the governor's office or Legislature to create one.

Brown's office was quick to point out Monday's federal court order giving the state until early 2016 to reduce crowding notes that the state only "will consider the establishment of a commission to recommend reforms of state penal and sentencing laws." Spokesman Jim Evans noted that was not a "promise" to create such a commission.

The proposal for a sentencing reform came from Senate leader Darrell Steinberg(D-Sacramento), who included it in a September 2013 letter to the federal judges supporting Brown's request for more time to deal with crowding.

February 11, 2014 at 09:23 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I don't know how you can blame Gov. Brown, who clearly hates this as much as anyone. On an unrelated note, I'd like someone to actually make the case for how this would "endanger lives," rather than having people accept it on their ipse dixit.

I think there's a fear of California dragging their feet (really, the greatest fear is when it'll show the court doesn't really have mechanisms to enforce their rulings). That being said, if a dollar not spent this year gives twice as much value next year, it's a good thing. California's system had such significant problems that it prompted the court order in the first place, but it also means those significant problems can't be remedied overnight.

Posted by: Erik M | Feb 11, 2014 10:26:21 AM

Must be friggin nice. Let one of the real American's ignore a court order and see how many years we get. INSIDE the prison.

Posted by: rodsmith | Feb 11, 2014 12:35:22 PM

I am always slightly amused when Doug, a resolute crusader against big government, suggests that we make it even bigger by adding a taxpayer-funded Sentencing Commission.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 11, 2014 1:02:25 PM

Is the concern with big government the number of people in it or its intrusiveness? I always assumed it was the latter. Federalism (sharing authority between state and federal governments) inevitably leads to greater redundancy and, hence, a larger government in the sense that there are more people working for it, but we generally think of it as a check on government to prevent it from becoming too big.

Posted by: Erik M | Feb 11, 2014 2:06:37 PM

Eric,

Unfortunately, what I see happening when the states and feds implement parallel programs is not the two watching each other but instead joining forces and extending their reach even further. The way to not have big government is to not have big government, just spreading it around results in even bigger government.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 11, 2014 5:07:34 PM

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