Judges Give Overcrowded, Unhealthy California Prisons a Two-Year Reprieve

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

After countless showdowns leading up to a drop-dead deadline—which California blew—for reducing the inmate population in its overcrowded prisons, a three-judge federal panel gave the state two more years to comply.

U.S. District Judges Lawrence K. Karlton and Thelton E. Henderson and U.S. 9th Circuit Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt announced last month that time had run out for the state to correct conditions they deemed cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Constitution, and that they would draw up their own solution within a month. This is that.

The inmate population of 117,634, which is 144.2% of prison design capacity, must be reduced to the previously court-stipulated level of 137.5% of capacity (112,164 inmates) within two years, instead of now. That compliance level has to hit 143% by June of this year and 141.5% by February 2015, or a newly-appointed “compliance officer” will give ‘em heck.

The judges plan is a combination of early-release for prisoners, more flexible parole requirements and a dose of wishful thinking. The judges noted that the Brown administration promised to consider establishing a commission to look at sentencing reform which, according to the Sacramento Bee, brought a frustrated rejoinder from Michael Bien, lead counsel for the inmates: “There is nothing in the order mandating a revision of the state’s criminal justice policies. It’s just maybe this and maybe that.”

The non-profit Prison Law Office opposed the two-year extension and spokesman Don Specter said the state could move much faster if it wanted to. “We believe that delaying overcrowding for two more years will only result in more suffering and death for prisoners who must endure these conditions,” he said. The organization represents inmates in the two lawsuits at the heart of the battle between California and the federal courts.

The Brown administration has pursued a realignment policy for nearly two years that has reduced the prison population by 25,000 primarily by directing low-level felons and parole violators to county jails, and shifting inmates to out-of-state prisons.

The judges said they agreed to the delay because they were taken with the state’s plan to meet the court’s goals by using money not spent on relieving the overcrowded conditions to help combat recidivism, thereby reducing the prison population. Governor Jerry Brown's proposed budget estimates $87.2 million in such savings, of which $81.1 million has been set aside for recidivism efforts and $6.1 million back to the state's general fund.

The fight over reducing prison overcrowding and cleaning up its miserable mental and physical health care has made it to the U.S. Supreme Court twice. The state lost both times, including a 5-4 decision in 2011 in which Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.”  

In addition to amping up efforts to reduce recidivism, the judges said, the state agreed to implement measures long sought by reformers. Among them: an expanded parole process for medically incapacitated inmates; an accelerated parole process for eligible non-violent prisoners; a new parole policy for inmates over 60 years of age who have served 25 years of their sentence; expanded alternative custody program for women; and the provision of more time off for good behavior for non-violent second-strikers.   

The judges ordered the state not to increase the approximately 8,900 inmates held in other states in an attempt to meet the court’s order, and apologized to prisoners and California residents for the sad state of affairs.

“We recognize that these measures should have been adopted much earlier, that [inmates’] lawyers have made unceasing efforts to obtain immediate relief on behalf of their clients, and that California prisoners deserve far better treatment than they have received from [the state] over the past four and a half years. Similarly, California's citizens have incurred far greater costs, both financial and otherwise, as a result of [the state’s] heretofore unyielding resistance to compliance with this court's orders.”  

Governor Brown, who declared the “prison crisis is over” and the “job’s done” a year ago, hailed the judges’ decision as “encouraging.” Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who has championed many of the recidivism reforms put forth by the jurists, was also supportive.

In the end, the judges wrote, “This should bring an end to defendants’ continual appeals and requests for modifications of this Court’s orders.”

We’ll see.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Prison Overcrowding Fix Gets Two-Year Extension (by Howard Mintz, San Jose Mercury News)

More Time for California to Unpack Its Prisons (by William Dotinga, Courthouse News Service)

California Gets 2 More Years to Cut Prison Numbers (by Don Thompson, Associated Press)

California Wins Two-Year Extension in Fight over Inmate Releases (by Sam Stanton, Sacramento Bee)

California Wins Delay on Prisoner Numbers (by Zusha Elinson and Alejandro Lazo, Wall Street Journal)

Prison-Crowding Order Renews Talk of Sentencing Changes (by Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times)

Judges Give up on Years of Failed Prison Talks, Will Craft Own Solution to Overcrowding (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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