Judges Order Massive Calif. Inmate Release

SAN FRANCISCO — California must release tens of thousands of inmates to relieve dangerous overcrowding in state prisons and improve substandard healthcare and conditions, according to a special three-judge federal panel.

The order would cap the state prison population at 120 percent to 145 percent of design capacity, which would require 37,000 to 58,000 inmates to be released. California’s 33 prisons hold nearly 160,000 inmates — almost 200 percent of capacity.

“Overcrowding is the primary cause of the unconstitutional conditions that have been found to exist in the California prisons,” according to the 10-page order. “There is no relief other than a prisoner release order that can remedy the constitutionally inadequate medical and mental healthcare.”

The administration previously said it would appeal any inmate release order to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This order, the latest intrusion by the federal judiciary into California’s prison system, is a blunt instrument that does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed,” says Attorney General Jerry Brown.

\ The panel is composed of U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento. Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco is the third member.

The state has a number of options, including reform of the earned-credit early release and parole systems, that would serve to reduce the prison population to whatever percentage is ultimately determined to be appropriate without adversely affecting public safety, the justices say.

The ruling notes that state officials previously proposed or supported many of the reform measures outlined. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Expert Panel on Adult Offender Recidivism Reduction Programming recommended a combination of earned credits and parole reform that would reduce the state prison population by approximately 40,000 inmates.

“We cannot believe that such support would exist if the adoption of such measures would adversely affect public safety,” the justices say. The state could direct a portion of the savings from population reduction, estimated at $800 million to $900 million, to new investments in community and prison programming that would relieve any increased burden local governments.
Gov. Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prison system in 2006 and authorized the transfer of up to 8,000 inmates to out-of-state facilities. The executive order, which remains in effect, cited dangerous overcrowding.

The Schwarzenegger administration’s 2009-10 budget proposal included a plan to cut state prison and parole populations by about 80,000 offenders. The state Legislature passed a bill containing similar measures in 2008, according to the panel.

The Schwarzenegger plan calls for the elimination of parole for nonserious, nonviolent and non-sex offenders; increasing good-time credit programs for the early-release of inmates; and expanded policies to reduce the number parole revocations for technical violations.

The justices issued the tentative ruling in an effort to encourage the state to reach a settlement with attorneys representing inmates in the long-running Plata and Coleman class action lawsuits, in which Henderson and Karlton are presiding.

The Plata case has been at the remedial stage since 2002, after Judge Henderson ruled the quality of medical care and conditions in California prisons violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In Coleman, Judge Karlton first ordered improvements in prison mental health treatment in 1995.

The Plata and Coleman courts convened the special three-judge panel after previous orders for “less intrusive relief” had failed to remedy the unconstitutional conditions, according to the ruling. Previous remediation orders — at least 77 in the Coleman case — issued by the courts included the appointment of a special master in Coleman and the establishment of a receivership in Plata.

The plaintiffs have been “denied their constitutional rights for fourteen and seven years, respectively,” and cannot be compelled to wait an “indeterminable additional number of years” for a resolution, according to the ruling.