News Column

California Ordered to Release Prisoners Immediately

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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 list of inmates who can safely be released using enhanced good-time credits.

"The assessments on those still incarcerated have already been done," he said. "It's a win, win, win situation. The state saves money on prisons, it identifies people who are ready to re-enter society, and the inmates have the opportunity to become good, productive citizens."

The judges were insistent that no further delays will be permitted, ordering the waiver of any state law or administrative procedure that would postpone releases. They also required the state to report on its progress every two weeks instead of the current monthly interval.

Attorneys for the inmates have accused the state of recalcitrance so blatant that they contend the Brown administration should be cited for contempt of court, a suggestion the judges found to have "considerable merit."

The judges said they would wait for the state's performance in response to Thursday's ruling before taking such a step, but castigated state officials for their foot-dragging.

"Defendants have consistently sought to frustrate every attempt by this court to achieve a resolution to the overcrowding problem," the judges wrote.

Now, they added, they are willing to allow the state leeway in how it achieves the order but "not whether to comply with it."

The order requires the state to "immediately take all steps necessary" to cut the population.

The state earlier indicated, albeit reluctantly, that it would employ various measures to cut the population, from reducing the rate of inmates being returned from out-of-state prisons to leasing jail space in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

But the judges said they see little evidence that such moves will get the head count to the level they have ordered.

They noted that Brown ended an emergency order allowing for the use of out-of-state prisons, an order instituted by his predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. They also noted that they see little reason to believe lawmakers are ready to approve funding for new prisons or bed space.

The three-judge panel's jurisdiction over prison population stems from two separate class actions, one filed in 1990 on behalf of seriously mentally ill inmates, the other in 2001 on behalf of physically ill inmates.

The legal combat came to a head in August 2009, when the judges ordered California to cut its population to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years. At the time, the inmate population was about 150,000 inmates, and the design capacity of the prisons is about 80,000 inmates.

The court wants the prison population cut by the end of the year to about 110,000 inmates, down from the current level of 149.8 percent, or about 119,000.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the inmate reduction order in June 2011, but continued squabbling delayed compliance.

Brown, meanwhile, has been adamant that California has done enough, and earlier this year he asked the court to release the state from further oversight of population, or give it more time to bring the count down to the mandated level, requests the judges denied in April.

Brown's administration subsequently appealed the matter for the second time to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the three-judge panel pointed out Thursday that the high court already has weighed in on the matter and sided with it.

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(c)2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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