For decades, California's political leaders have tried every imaginable
approach to dealing with its overcrowded prisons -- sending inmates out of
state, fighting the federal courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,
promising more prison beds and insisting that it has done plenty to cut inmate
populations and improve health care.
On Thursday, a panel of three federal judges said they have had enough.
In a sharp rebuke of Gov. Jerry Brown, the judges said the state must take immediate steps to release inmates toward compliance with the panel's 2009 order that the prison population be reduced to 137.5 percent of capacity, an order the U.S. Supreme Court later adopted.
"The history of this litigation is of defendants' repeated failure to take the necessary steps to remedy the constitutional violations in its prison system," the panel wrote in a scathing 51-page order and opinion that demands the state immediately slash inmate levels or face a contempt citation.
"We are compelled to enforce the Federal Constitution and to enforce the constitutional rights of all persons, including prisoners," the panel wrote in an order that left no doubt the judges believe the state has intentionally defied its previous orders.
The latest one essentially requires the state to cut its inmate population by nearly 10,000 inmates by the end of the year, and to take steps to ensure that the count will not jump back above the 137.5 percent level.
The court -- U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of Sacramento, Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of San Francisco -- ordered the state to expand the use of good-time credits to cut the inmate population, a tool the judges indicated would trim prison sentences of some inmates by several months without endangering the public.
The judges ruled in 2009 that health care in the prison system is so bad it is unconstitutional, with the primary reason being the overcrowded conditions of the institutions.
Brown's office issued a terse one-line statement in response to Thursday's action: "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 already has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to appeal the three-judge court's unyielding stance on the inmate population lid.
Michael Bien, lead counsel for the inmates, said Thursday's order vindicates an effort that began in the 1980s and has been a constant source of bitter dispute in the courts and the Legislature.
"We strongly support the necessity of complying with the orders of the U.S. Supreme Court and the three-judge court," Bien said. "It is the only way the state can start remedying unconstitutional health care in its prisons."
Bien added that concerns about a release of prisoners compromising public safety are unfounded and that the state knows it.
"The public need not be concerned," he said. "Further release of inmates can be done safely and appropriately. This administration knows how to identify prisoners that can safely be released."
He noted that Brown's "realignment" program, which hands responsibility for nonviolent, nonserious offenders to the counties, already has helped reduce inmate counts in the state's 33 adult prisons and that the state has compiled a
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