Gov. Jerry Brown has asked a federal three-judge panel to lift an order requiring the state to reduce the number of inmates in its overcrowded prisons to 110,000 by June.
In filings in federal courts in San Francisco and Sacramento on Monday night, Brown contends the order is no longer needed because the prison population has already been significantly reduced and health care greatly improved.
“The overcrowding and health care conditions cited by this court to support its population reduction order are now a distant memory,” state lawyers argued in the papers.
“California’s vastly improved prison health care system now provides inmates with superior care that far exceeds the minimum requirements of the Constitution,” the attorneys contended.
The population reduction was ordered in 2009 by the three-judge panel acting on a lawsuit in which inmates claimed that prison health care was so deficient that it amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
The panel concluded that severe overcrowding was a primary cause of poor health care and ordered the state to decrease the population of its 33 adult prisons to 110,000 inmates, or 137 percent of the designed capacity. At the time, the prisons housed 150,000 inmates in facilities designed for 80,000.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling in 2011, saying that the “grossly inadequate” health care was unconstitutional.
The prison population has now fallen to 119,000, as a result of several measures, including the so-called “realignment” process in which some low-level offenders are diverted to county jails.
Brown claims in the court papers that continued enforcement of the population reduction order is now “unfair, unnecessary and illegal.”
Monday was also a deadline for the Brown administration to tell the court how it would complete the remainder of the population reduction by June.
In a separate filing, the administration said the number of inmates could be reduced further by changes in state laws to provide shorter sentences and/or by court orders for the early release of some prisoners, but argued that those options might endanger public safety.
The three-judge panel is made up of U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt of Los Angeles.
It was convened under a federal law that provides that a court order to reduce prison population can be made only by a three-judge panel and not by a single trial judge acting on a civil rights lawsuit.
Donald Specter, a lawyer for the inmates, called Brown’s filings “misguided and misplaced” and said the prisoners’ attorneys will oppose lifting the 2009 order.
“He’s not aware of the true facts, which show that the prison system is still unconstitutionally overcrowded,” said Specter, who works out of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley.
In a statement filed with the court on Monday, the prisoners’ attorneys argued that the prison system remains “vastly overcrowded,” that medical and mental health care continues to be inadequate and that there are safe and effective ways to reduce the population.