Attention, class. Today’s new word is “contumacious.” It means stubborn or willfully disobedient, recalcitrant and obstinate—and it’s how a panel of federal judges described Governor Jerry Brown and his refusal to further reduce overcrowding in California prisons.
The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threatened Brown with contempt of court if he kept it up and ordered his administration to come up with a plan within 21 days that deals with their concerns. The administration indicated it would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which would be its second trip there.
Back in January, Brown declared victory in the seven-year struggle to meet federal court orders to reduce prison overcrowding and improve the lousy mental and physical health care afforded inmates, although the state failed to meet the requirements set by judges.
Brown said the “prison crisis is over” and California would no longer pour money down a “rat hole of incarceration.” The federal takeover followed years of prison horror stories, frequent inmate deaths, defiant mismanagement and, in the end, lawsuits.
The prison population, which peaked at 161,000, has been reduced to fewer than 120,000. But that is still more than 9,000 above what the courts decreed and way above the 81,000 inmates the prisons were designed to accommodate. The state has embarked upon a realignment that shifted monitoring and incarceration of certain low-level offenders to authorities at overcrowded local jails. But it is not enough.
The U.S. Supreme Court told the state in 2011 that it had no choice but to abide by federal court rulings and the Court of Appeals reiterated that demand on Thursday, as expected.
The court acknowledged the progress made so far by the state, but also noted the rocky road ahead. “What further steps they will take in order to comply is equally clear: None,” they wrote.
If Brown and his administration fail to heed the court’s demands, “they will without further delay be subject to findings of contempt, individually and collectively,” the court said. “We make this observation reluctantly, but with determination that defendants will not be allowed to continue to violate the requirements of the Constitution of the United States.”