New York Times – Court Orders California to Cut Prison Population By SOLOMON MOORE (Published: February 9, 2009) –
The California prison system must reduce overcrowding by as many as 55,000 inmates within three years to provide a constitutional level of medical and mental health care, a federal three-judge panel tentatively ruled Monday.
Relying on expert testimony, the court ruled that the California prison system, the nation’s largest with more than 150,000 inmates, could reduce its population by shortening sentences, diverting nonviolent felons to county programs, giving inmates good behavior credits toward early release, and reforming parole, which they said would have no adverse impact on public safety. The panel said that without such a plan, conditions would continue to deteriorate and inmates might regularly die of suicide or lack of proper care.
“The evidence is compelling that there is no relief other than a prisoner-release order that will remedy the unconstitutional prison conditions,” the panel said in its tentative ruling.
The California attorney general, Jerry Brown, vowed to appeal the ruling.
“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,” Mr. Brown said in a statement.
“The court’s tentative ruling is not constitutionally justified,” he said. “Therefore, the state will appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court when the final order is issued.”
The court supported its argument by citing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s own support for prison reforms, which he has said would reduce the population by about 40,000 inmates.
“We cannot believe that such support would exist if the adoption of such measures would adversely affect public safety,” the court ruled.
The panel, which is composed of a federal appeals judge for the Ninth Circuit and two federal district judges, estimated the state could save $803 million to $906 million annually if it were to reduce its prison population. It also said it could use that money to shore up local agencies that would serve parolees or probationers diverted from prison.
The ruling left the door open for still more negotiations between the thousands of imprisoned plaintiffs and the state in the court proceedings, part of a series of class-action lawsuits accusing the state of failing to provide adequate health care to prisoners.
Federal judges have already ruled that the state’s failure to provide medical and mental health care is killing at least one inmate every month and has subjected inmates to cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Constitution.
In their ruling on Monday, the judges ruled that reducing overcrowding was the only way to reform the prison health care system and encouraged plaintiffs’ and state lawyers to negotiate a way to cut the prison population. The judges also indicated that they would mandate a prison population cap of about 120 percent to 145 percent of the state’s designed capacity.
The judges have been reluctant to order specific reforms, however, and several times during final arguments they asked lawyers for the state what their plans were to reduce the prison population and whether the court had the authority to impose specific remedies.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Don Specter, said the judges, all of whom are known for their liberal rulings, may be reluctant to give specific reforms to the state, preferring the state arrive at its own reduction plan, because the judges’ decision might otherwise be overturned by the United States Supreme Court, which would hear any appeal.
One judge on the panel, Thelton E. Henderson, already appointed a federal receiver to take over the prison health care system. The receivership, which has demanded billions of dollars for new medical facilities, has repeatedly clashed with the strapped state, which recently demanded the dissolution of the court-appointed office.
The California prison system has doubled its design capacity, and some facilities are even more packed than that. Prison gymnasiums and classrooms are packed with three-tier prisoners’ bunks, and lines for prison health clinics often snake 50 men deep. Rehabilitation programs, recreational facilities and health care facilities are all compromised by the crowds of felons.
Lawyers for the prisoners said that despite California’s exceptionally poor conditions, the ruling could have a national impact on prison reform if other inmate lawsuits seek population caps on other overcrowded facilities.
The ruling is also an important success for inmates since the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, which made it harder for prisoners to bring lawsuits and limited court remedies for allegations of prison abuse.