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More Time for California to Unpack Its Prisons

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Gov. Jerry Brown won an extra two years Monday to reduce prison overcrowding from reluctant judges who don't want to see prisoners sent out of state by legislators.

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 prisoners with serious medical conditions.

A three-judge panel from California's Northern and Eastern Districts first ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity in 2009.

After the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in 2011, the panel - including U.S. District Judges Lawrence Karlton and Thelton Henderson as well as Judge Stephen Reinhardt from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals - gave the state until Dec. 31 to release 10,000 prisoners or face contempt charges.

Brown and the Legislature responded by drafting a plan - Senate Bill 105 - that combines leasing space in county jails and out-of-state prisons, along with incentives to reduce recidivism should the panel agree to a two-year extension. On Monday, the panel agreed to the extension but said sending prisoners out of the state is "neither durable nor desirable."

"It would result in thousands of prisoners being incarcerated hundreds or thousands of miles from the support of their families, and in hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent on long-lasting prison reform being spent instead on temporarily housing prisoners in out-of-state facilities," the panel wrote. "Moreover, we have consistently demanded a 'durable' solution to California prison overcrowding, and plaintiffs' proposal does not help to achieve that solution."

The judges also noted, however, that for the first time in over two decades of litigation, state officials appear serious about reducing the prison population - hence the reluctant two-year grace period.

"For the first time under this order, there will be an effective mechanism which will ensure that benchmarks are met: a 'compliance officer' who will have the authority to release prisoners should the state fail to reach one of the benchmarks, with the number of prisoners released being the number necessary to bring defendants into compliance with the missed benchmark," the panel wrote. "Further, during these two years, officials have agreed to develop comprehensive and sustainable prison population-reduction reforms, including considering the establishment of a commission to recommend reforms of state penal and sentencing laws. They have also agreed to immediately implement various population reduction measures, such as increasing good time credits prospectively for non-violent second-strike offenders and minimum custody inmates, implementing a new parole determination process by which second-strike offenders will be eligible for parole after serving only 50 percent of their sentence, and expanding parole for the elderly and medically infirm."

The panel also highlighted the recidivism reduction fund touted by Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who authored SB 105. California's promise to stop using the courts to delay its inmate-reduction obligations also cemented the extension - though not without rebuke by the judges.

"We recognize that these measures should have been adopted much earlier, that the 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," the panel wrote. "Similarly, California's citizens have incurred far greater costs, both financial and otherwise, as a result of defendants' heretofore unyielding resistance to compliance with this court's orders. Finally, we recognize that this court must also accept part of the blame for not acting more forcefully with regard to the state's obduracy in the face of its continuing constitutional violations. Nevertheless, resolving the conditions in California prisons for the long run, and not merely for the next few months, is of paramount importance to this court as well as to the people of this state."

Brown called the extension "encouraging," and added that it gave California "the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer."

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