Day of Inmate-Reduction Reckoning in CA Looms

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – In a sternly worded rebuke, a panel of federal judges ordered California to release 10,000 prisoners by the end of 2013 or face contempt charges.
     The battle over California prison overcrowding has spanned five governors and 23 years since prisoners Ralph Coleman and Marciano Plata charged that cramped conditions degraded medical and mental health care. Coleman filed a federal class action in 1990 on behalf of seriously mentally ill inmates, while Plata filed his 2001 action to improve conditions for prisons with serious medical conditions.
     A three-judge panel for California’s Eastern and Northern Districts first ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity in 2009, but left state officials to come up with a specific plan. California appealed the order, arguing that the panel was convened prematurely and that the substance of the order was improper.
     Though a five-justice majority of the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the order in 2011, Justice Antonin Scalia decried the entire proceedings as “a judicial travesty,” and Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “the Constitution does not give federal judges the authority to run state penal systems.”
     California has reduced its inmate population by more than 46,000 since 2006. The 2011 Prison Realignment Act, which sentences nonviolent, nonserious felons to county jails rather than state prison, accounts for more than half of that number. Still, the population remains 9,400 over the capacity mandate.
     After the District Courts panel refused to modify its order in April, state officials submitted an inmate-reduction plan last month.
     The panel concluded Thursday, however, that this plan is inadequate. It set a Dec. 31 deadline to comply and offered its own suggestions to relieve overcrowding.
     “Because defendants’ plan does not comply with our order, this court hereby orders defendants to implement an additional measure along with its plan that will bring defendants into compliance: the expansion of good time credits,” the panel wrote. “This measure, in conjunction with the measures included in the plan submitted by defendants, will constitute an amended plan-a plan that will, unlike defendants’ plan, reduce the overall prison population to 137.5 percent design capacity by Dec. 31, 2013. Defendants are ordered to take all steps necessary to implement all measures in the amended plan, commencing forthwith, notwithstanding any state or local laws or regulations to the contrary.”
     “All such state and local laws or regulations are hereby waived, effective immediately,” the panel added.
     The panel also encouraged prison officials to identify low-risk inmates and ones unlikely to reoffend and release them first. But the judges stressed again and again in the 54-page ruling that any inmates over the 137.5 percent ceiling on Dec. 31 must be released on that day.
     Gov. Jerry Brown also drew sharp criticism from the panel for terminating his emergency powers earlier this year, in a proclamation that said “prison overcrowding no longer poses safety risks to prison staff or inmates, nor does it inhibit the delivery of timely and effective health care services to inmates.”
     Doing so eliminated California’s ability to ship inmates to out-of-state prisons and will actually increase the prison population by 9,500 inmates in coming years, the panel found.
     “The governor’s declaration that the constitutional crisis in the prisons had ended and that overcrowding no longer posed health risks to prisoners or safety risks to prisoners or staff was contrary to the fact and served no legal purpose other than, by terminating his own authority with regard to out-of-state prisoner housing, to make it more difficult for defendants to comply with this court’s orders while publicly proclaiming ‘Victory’ or ‘Mission accomplished,'” the opinion states.
     “Defendants have consistently sought to frustrate every attempt by this court to achieve a resolution to the overcrowding problem,” the judges added.
     The panel ordered state officials to send progress reports biweekly, rather than monthly as previously ordered. A benchmark report due on Dec. 15 must include the number of inmates in California prisons as of Dec. 1, the number permitted by the 137.5 percent capacity cap, and the number of inmates the state expects to release between Dec. 1 and Dec. 31.
     State and local laws requiring felons to be housed in state prisons are waived by the order effectively immediately, allowing the prison officials to use fire camps, lease county jail space, expand parole, use good time credits and keep out-of-state inmates where they are, the panel ordered. The judges also issued a blanket waiver for any other regulations that may stand in the way of officials carrying out the order – staving off any potential fights in the Legislature.
     “We recognize that defendants have stated that they are seeking legislative approval of the measures in their plan and that therefore we should delay our issuance of this order, or more specifically our waiver of contrary state laws and regulations, until such efforts have been exhausted,” the panel wrote. “However, as of the date of this order there is nothing to suggest that defendants have made any progress beyond preliminarily drafting proposed legislation, and it is entirely unrealistic to believe that the drafted legislation, once submitted, will be approved. Gov. Brown has stated that he will prepare the necessary legislation but will not urge its adoption. The leader of the state Senate has announced that defendants’ plan will be DOA, ‘dead on arrival.'”
     The panel continued: “Much like defendants’ argument that a prisoner release order is unnecessary as the Legislature might fund additional construction, any notion that the California Legislature will authorize the measures in the plan is ‘chimerical.’ The Supreme Court refused to ‘ignore the political and fiscal reality behind this case,’ and we will follow that lead. Waiting months for what is unlikely legislative authorization will simply amount to yet another unnecessary delay in the resolution of the ongoing constitutional violations in the California prison system. This court will not accept such needless delay.”
     The plaintiff prisoners wanted the court to hold Gov. Brown in contempt, but the judges decided to defer resolving on this issue.
     Brown’s plan for compliance was actually “a plan for non-compliance,” but “we leave that problem for another time,” the panel wrote.
     “Today, we order defendants to immediately take all steps necessary to implement the measures in the amended plan, notwithstanding any state or local laws or regulations to the contrary and, in any event, to reduce the prison population to 137.5 percent design capacity by Dec. 31, 2013,” they added.
     “Failure to take such steps or to report on such steps every two weeks shall constitute an act of contempt.”
     In his own tersely worded statement, Brown – who has already lodged an appeal of the order with the Supreme Court – said he will fight the panel’s decision.
     “The state will seek an immediate stay of this unprecedented order to release almost 10,000 inmates by the end of this year,” Brown said.

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