By Bob Egelko
A federal court gave California two more years Monday to reduce the population of its overcrowded prisons, yielding to pressure from state officials who said they could meet an impending deadline only by shipping thousands of inmates to other states.
The three-judge court had initially set a June 2013 deadline for the state to lower the inmate population to 37.5 percent above its designed capacity in order to reduce overcrowding that had undermined prison health care.
The court extended the deadline several times. The latest deadline was Feb. 24, but on Monday, the court said it was reluctantly granting Gov. Jerry Brown‘s request for another two years. The main reason, the court said, was a warning from state officials that they would respond to an order for immediate compliance by transferring more inmates to prisons in other states, joining 8,900 California prisoners already locked up out of state.
That would result in “thousands of prisoners being incarcerated hundreds or thousands of miles from the support of their families” and would consume “hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent on long-lasting prison reform,” the court said.
Monday’s order gives the state until Feb. 28, 2016, to reduce the prison population, which now totals 117,500. The court had previously required a reduction to 110,000, but state officials said they have increased the system’s capacity by opening a new prison hospital in Stockton, and now can comply by lowering the population to 112,100.
The court barred further transfers of inmates out of state, but agreed that to meet the new deadline, the state could move some inmates to a private prison in California, and to county jails with available space. The court also accepted several measures proposed by Brown and state lawmakers to reduce the inmate population. They include:
— Increasing good-behavior credits, which shorten sentences, for prisoners in minimum security and for those sentenced for nonviolent “second strike” felonies after a previous serious felony conviction.
— Expanding parole consideration for medically incapacitated prisoners, granting parole eligibility for those 60 and older who have spent at least 25 years in prison, and speeding up parole for those who have already been found suitable for release.
— Appointing a compliance officer who could order the immediate release of inmates if the state failed to meet interim population goals set by the court during the next two years.
The court ruled in 2009 that overcrowding, in prisons that had been packed to nearly twice their intended capacity, was the main cause of shoddy health care that violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the population-reduction orders in 2011.
Brown and the Legislature responded by enacting prison realignment, which sentenced lower-level felons to county jails and has reduced the state prison population by about 25,000. The governor has resisted subsequent orders to lower the population further by reducing sentences, arguing that the public would be at risk.
The governor and legislators said an additional two-year extension would allow time for expanded treatment and rehabilitation programs that would further reduce the prison population, while the state expanded and improved inmate health care. But lawyers for inmates who sued the state over medical care in 2001 opposed the extension and expressed disappointment with Monday’s order.
“Prisoners are living under terrible, overcrowded conditions which cause them to suffer and die,” said attorney Donald Specter of the nonprofit Prison Law Office. He said the court should have kept the deadline intact even if it meant transferring more inmates out of state.
Brown praised the order. “The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer,” the governor said in a statement.