Three weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown declared the state's prison overcrowding crisis over, a court of three federal judges said Tuesday that state officials can have six more months to reduce the inmate population to the previously ordered level.
The judges noted that California officials have said they cannot meet the court's June 30 deadline for reducing its population to 137.5 percent of design capacity, but the officials believe they can hit that mark by Dec. 31.
"Accordingly, this court modifies the June 30, 2011, order by granting defendants a six-month extension in which to comply with its terms and provisions," said the order from 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of Sacramento and U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of San Francisco.
Karlton and Henderson have overseen years of litigation aimed at bringing the level of mental and medical health care for inmates up to constitutional standards. Following a trial, the three-judge court appointed by the 9th Circuit's chief judge ruled that the crowded conditions of the state's 33 adult prisons were the primary reason for the unconstitutional care.
Prisoners were jammed into areas of the prisons not designed for housing. At some points, the number of inmates ballooned to double the designed capacity, and the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the three-judge court's order.
Since the governor instituted his so-called realignment program a year ago to divert nonviolent, nonserious offenders to county jurisdictions, the state has made progress cutting the prison population, but Brown said he cannot release additional inmates without putting the public at risk.
Corrections officials indicated they are pleased with Tuesday's order but are still not satisfied.
"We are pleased the court recognized that releasing thousands of inmates to reach the arbitrary population cap by June would have jeopardized public safety," the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement. "However, we believe the court should go further and terminate the population cap entirely, as CDCR is providing a constitutional level of health care at current population levels.
"It's important to point out that the state has reduced the prison population by more than 43,000 inmates since 2006, and has spent billions of dollars to improve the delivery of care to inmates."
It said even the December deadline is "an arbitrary number based on 'original design capacity' (that) would come at great risk to public safety or significant taxpayer expense."
The federal court wants the prison population cut by the end of the year to about 110,000 inmates, down from about 119,000 currently. The design capacity of the state's 33 adult prisons is about 80,000.
The court's order noted that Brown's administration declared earlier this month that "there are no ongoing systemwide constitutional violations in medical and mental health care," and the state filed motions seeking to end oversight by the federal judges.
Michael Bien, lead attorney for the inmates, said Tuesday that "the order's message is the judges are going to hold the state to the numbers. Corrections got an extension, but it didn't get anything else. The question is still 'Are they going to comply?' "
Brown and his prison officials "are still saying everything is just fine and the courts should go away and leave us alone," Bien said. "They claim the courts have no more jurisdiction since the constitutional standard has been met.
"It's one thing to say that, it's another to prove it," he declared. "They have a long way to go to do that. They've made these claims before, but they've never been able to back them up."
Throughout the rest of this year, he said, the state's all-out push to rid itself of court supervision will be hotly contested.
Karlton has presided for more than 20 years over a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all seriously mentally ill inmates. The Brown administration has filed a motion to dismiss that suit and a motion to vacate the three-judge court's ruling on population reduction. It has not yet filed a similar motion in Henderson's court seeking to do away with the class action on behalf of all medically ill inmates over which he presides.
Karlton has scheduled oral arguments for March 27 on the motion to wipe out the suit on behalf of mental patients in the prisons.