Prisons in the most populous U.S. state house about 120,000
inmates, 50 percent more than they were built to hold, but officials
have fought for years against a series of court orders demanding a
reduction in crowding, citing at various times budget concerns and
worries about releasing dangerous criminals early.
On Monday, the judges said they would rule within the next 30 days
on whether to grant the state's latest request — for a two-year
extension on reducing crowding — or insist that the state meet a
deadline in late April or early May.
"This court has repeatedly extended the meet-and-confer process, and
by virtue thereof the date for the state's compliance, in hopes that
the parties could reach agreement," the judges wrote. "It now
appears that no such agreement will be reached."
California prisons have been in the national spotlight for the past
year as officials wrestled with crowding and concerns about the
state's use of long-term solitary confinement for prisoners with
suspected gang ties, which led to a hunger strike.
The crowding has been ruled unconstitutional by the panel as well as
the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that the conditions result in
inadequate medical and mental health care.
Last summer, the state promised to spend millions on mental health
care and anti-recidivism programs for inmates if the judges granted
a two-year extension to their order — fought at every turn by
California Governor Jerry Brown and his staff — to reduce crowding
to just 137.5 percent of capacity by the end of 2013.
At one point, the federal panel threatened to hold Brown personally
in contempt of court if he did not fix the problem.
The state has already moved to reduce the crowding by shifting some
inmates to county oversight, reopening shuttered facilities and
housing some prisoners at private facilities. Although the prisons
are at about 150 percent of capacity, that's a considerable
reduction over a few years ago, when the facilities were crammed at
200 percent of capacity and inmates slept in bunks stacked in
gymnasia and common rooms, as well as regular cells.
[to top of second column]
An order to reduce crowding immediately could cause unwelcome
political ripples for Brown, who is widely expected to run for
re-election this year.
His transfer of inmates released on parole to the jurisdiction of
the counties ruffled feathers at the local level even as it reduced
crowding in state institutions, and continued pressure to reduce the
prison population could stir up those tensions again.
In addition, Brown built an assumption that the extension would be
granted into his proposed budget for next year, saying it would save
$90 million in costs associated with housing inmates at private
prisons and county jails.
He said through a spokeswoman Monday that he remained hopeful that
the judges would give the state more time.
"We are hopeful the court will recognize that the state has made
significant reforms to our criminal justice system and will allow us
an extension so we can build upon these landmark reforms," the
spokeswoman, Deborah Hoffman, said in an email.
But prisoners rights lawyer Donald Specter, who represents inmates
in one of two cases underpinning the overcrowding rulings, said he
would oppose granting any extension to the state.
"The overcrowding creates unconstitutional conditions which harm my
clients, and the sooner the crowding is reduced the easier it will
be for the state to provide adequate health care for the prisoners,"
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Lisa Shumaker)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.