Court In SF: State Officials “have no excuse for failing to meet” Prison Population Requirements

A federal court today reaffirmed its order for a reduction of nearly 10,000 in the state’s prison population by Dec. 31, saying that Gov. Brown and other officials “have no excuse for failing to meet” the requirement.

A three-judge panel, in a ruling issued in San Francisco, suggested several ways the state could decrease the number of inmates, including by expanding sentencing credit for good behavior in prison.

But the panel said that if the Brown administration can’t or won’t accept the suggestions, it must then release prisoners from a list of those considered at low risk for reoffending.

The mandated decrease of 9,636 inmates from the current 132,888 would bring the population of the state’s 33 overcrowded adult prisons to 137.5 percent of design capacity.

In previous decisions that were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, the panel concluded that percentage represented the minimum reduction needed to provide adequate prison health care.

“No matter what implementation challenges defendants face, no matter what unexpected misfortunes arise, defendants shall reduce the prison population to 137.5 percent by Dec. 31, 2013, even if that is achieved solely through the release of prisoners from the low-risk list,” the panel said today.

The panel 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 inmate civil rights lawsuits concerning medical and mental health care in the prisons.

Brown said he will challenge the order.

“The state will seek an immediate stay of this unprecedented order to release almost 10,000 inmates by the end of this year,” the governor said.

The state has already filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of an April ruling in which the panel declined to modify or set aside the 137.5 percent target.

Brown contends that conditions have improved and that further reductions are unneeded and would endanger public safety. The state has previously decreased prisoner numbers from a peak of 162,500 in 2006, most recently through a realignment policy that shifts low-level offenders to county jails.

After the panel rejected Brown’s argument in April, state officials in May reluctantly submitted a plan to achieve part of the remaining reduction through measures including increased use of fire camps, a program that has employed over 1,500 inmates as firefighters.

But the panel said today that Brown’s plan fell short by 4,170 inmates.

The court used its federal judicial power to order a waiver of any state laws that would prevent the Brown administration from expanding good-time credits or leasing county jail space for use as prison cells.

It said increasing good-time credits “is fully consistent with public safety” and noted that the Supreme Court had upheld its conclusions on that issue.

The panel ordered Brown and Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard to submit reports every two weeks on progress toward meeting the goal, and said they could be found in contempt of court if they fail to take needed steps or to submit the reports.

The California State Sheriffs’ Association issued a statement calling the order “unbelievably ill-advised and a tremendous threat to public safety.”

Association President Greg Ahern, who is sheriff of Alameda County, said a release of inmates would cause a “wave of criminality” that could not be absorbed by county jail facilities.

But Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, termed the ruling “a wake-up call” for the need for sentencing reform.

The state’s adult prisons were designed to house just under 80,000 inmates. In 2009, the panel concluded that severe overcrowding was the primary cause of “woefully and unconstitutionally inadequate” health care.

The panel 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 court, rather than by a single judge.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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