A three-judge federal court has rejected a bid by Gov. Jerry Brown for modification of its order for the reduction of the number of inmates in the state’s overcrowded prisons.
“The constitutional violations with respect to the provision of medical and mental health care are still ongoing,” the court said in a ruling issued Thursday in San Francisco.
The 2009 order, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, requires the state to reduce the population of its 33 adult prisons to 110,000, or 137.5 percent of planned capacity, by Dec. 31.
The prisons now house 119,400 inmates, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The panel mandated the reduction four years ago after concluding that severe overcrowding was primary cause of “woefully and constitutionally inadequate” health care in the prisons.
At the time, the prisons held 150,000 inmates, or nearly double the planned capacity of 80,000. Much of the reduction since then has been achieved through the so-called realignment policy, in which low-level offenders are placed in county jails instead of state prisons.
Brown, arguing that conditions have now improved, asked the panel in January to lift or ease the reduction order.
But the court said Brown hadn’t shown that the health care now meets constitutional standards or that there were any other circumstances to justify lifting the order.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the state will appeal.
Hoffman said California has invested more than $1 billion in its prison health care system and now provides “timely and effective health care to inmates that far exceeds what the Constitution requires.”
The three-judge court is made up of U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt of Los Angeles.
Henderson and Karlton are presiding over two long-running civil rights cases in which prisoners challenged the adequacy of medical and mental health care.
The judges noted that the Supreme Court found the 137.5 percent population cap necessary and said, “Defendants have already lost this argument, and they should not be allowed to relitigate it.”
The judges said they will consider finding Brown and prison officials in contempt of court if they do not comply with the order. They said it is up to the Brown administration to decide how to reduce the population, but suggested that officials could achieve the goal safely by expanding good-behavior credits and releasing low-risk elderly prisoners early.
The three-member court was convened under a federal law that provides that in prison civil rights cases, an order to reduce inmate population can be made only by a three-judge panel, rather than by a single judge, and only as a last resort.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News