California Ordered to Cut Prison Population

Seems the State’s money troubles are a boon for some prisoners? A nice get out of jail free card for them courtesy of federal judges. And, those poor people with their rights being ignored…… Only in California….

The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

In a historic move Tuesday, a panel of three federal judges ordered California officials to cut the state’s prison population by 40,591 inmates in the next two years because of chronic overcrowding that the panel said has resulted in an unconstitutional level of medical and mental health care.

The order will not result in the immediate release of any of the state’s 150,354 inmates in 33 adult prisons.

Attorney General Jerry Brown said in an interview that the order is probably not appealable, but eventually the state will have to consider going directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, marking the first time the high court would face such a case.

“I think the Supreme Court would see it differently,” Brown said.

State officials said the proper solution is for the governor and legislators to work out a reduction plan as funding becomes available. The state should not be forced to function under the hammer of a federal court order, they said.

“We just don’t agree that the federal courts should be ordering us to take these steps,” said Matthew Cate, secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

California’s prison system is operating at 190 percent of its design capacity of 79,828 inmates, and the judges said the state must devise an inmate reduction plan within 45 days, after which a remedial order will be issued.

“The court will not grant any stay of the proceedings prior to the issuance of the final population reduction plan, but will entertain motions to stay implementation of that plan pending the resolution of any appeal to the Supreme Court,” the judges said in their 184-page order.

“The convergence of tough-on-crime policies and an unwillingness to expend the necessary funds to support the population growth has brought California’s prisons to the breaking point,” the judges said.

They added that “federal courts do not intervene in state affairs lightly,” but that conditions in California’s prisons have become “horrific.”

The rights of California’s prisoners “have repeatedly been ignored,” the judges wrote. “Where the political process has utterly failed to protect the constitutional rights of a minority, the courts can, and must, vindicate those rights.”

The order stems from class actions filed against the state on behalf of sick and mentally ill inmates, alleging overcrowding has led to health care that constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment under the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

Brown hotly disputed that analysis.

“The state spends $14,000 a year on each inmate for health care, and these judges claim people are dying because they’re not getting adequate treatment,” the attorney general noted. “I don’t believe that. That’s not possible. Sure, things were pretty bad in the past, but that’s no longer true.

“We tried to present evidence at (last year’s trial before the three judges) on current conditions, and they wouldn’t let us,” Brown added.

“Public safety will not be compromised,” he declared. “I will do everything I can to achieve that goal.”

Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, which represents the inmates along with other lawyers, called the order “a landmark ruling and historic day in prison litigation in this state and in the country.”

“The court’s order will now require what virtually every expert and even the state itself has recognized for 15 years needed to be done,” he said. “It can be accomplished safely, thoughtfully and without any adverse impact on our state.”

Michael Bien, co-lead counsel for the inmates, said, “The state should take this opportunity to remedy the overcrowding problem once and for all.”

The order comes as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is seeking to reduce the prison population by approximately 27,000 to plug a $1.2 billion hole in the corrections budget. That plan is being attacked by crime victims’ groups angry at the prospect of such a reduction, and the order from the judges Tuesday further upset some.

“This is a little frightening,” said Christine Ward, director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance in Sacramento. “I can’t say I’m surprised, but I am disappointed.”

Lance Corcoran, spokesman for the California Correctional Police Officers Association, called the order “a prescription for disaster” that will endanger lives and property.

Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, head of the California Police Chiefs Association, said the judges’ order makes it critical for the governor and legislators to reach agreement on how to reduce the state’s inmate population.

When they return from recess Aug. 17, legislators are expected to resume talks on the governor’s inmate reduction proposal, and the judges’ order makes a need for a breakthrough that much more critical.

The judges — Lawrence K. Karlton of the Eastern District in Sacramento, Thelton E. Henderson of the Northern District in San Francisco and Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — said overcrowding had left mentally ill inmates without access to health care and noted that since mid-2005, “a California inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days.”

“During the pendency of this proceeding, the outlook for California’s prisons has only grown dimmer,” they wrote.

“The state is now in the throes of a fiscal crisis that renders it unable or unwilling to commit the necessary resources to fix the problems in its prisons.”

The judges said that “a prison system’s capacity is not defined by square footage alone; it is also determined by the system’s resources and its ability to provide inmates with essential services such as food, air, and temperature and noise control.”

The panel said California’s prison population had increased 750 percent since the mid-1970s, largely because of the “shift to inflexible determinate sentencing and the passage of harsh mandatory minimum and ‘three-strikes’ laws.”

“Thousands of prisoners are assigned to ‘bad beds,’ such as triple-bunked beds placed in gymnasiums or day rooms, and some institutions have populations approaching 300 percent of their intended capacity,” the panel said. “In these overcrowded conditions, inmate-on-inmate violence is almost impossible to prevent, infectious diseases spread more easily, and lockdowns are sometimes the only means by which to maintain control. In short, California’s prisons are bursting at the seams and are impossible to manage.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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  1. The mudman cometh.

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