A three-judge federal court on Thursday rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's attempt to avoid the court's order to reduce California's prison population, saying if his administration does not further relieve prison overcrowding, the governor and his top prison officials will face contempt of court.
Since the motion was filed in early January, Brown and Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard have said that, if their request was denied, they would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The three judges said in a 71-page order that if Brown and his top corrections officials do not comply with the order, they would be held in contempt "individually and collectively."
They wrote that they make such a threat reluctantly, "but with determination that defendants will not be allowed to continue to violate the requirements of the Constitution of the United States."
The ruling was the second major setback in less than a week for the Brown administration's all-out push to get prison health care out from under control of the federal judiciary.
In a stinging rebuke of that effort April 5, Sacramento U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton not only denied the state's motion to terminate his oversight of prison mental health care, he struck down part of the state's evidence in support of the motion, finding Brown, corrections officials and their lawyers from the attorney general's office stooped to unethical tactics.
He said prison mental health care is still woefully short of adequate when measured against constitutional requirements.
Karlton also sits on the specially convened three-judge court that has the population issue before it, along with 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt and U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of San Francisco.
That panel first ordered the population reduction in 2009, finding after a non-jury trial that overcrowding was the primary reason for unconstitutional health care in the prison system. California's prison inmate population must be reduced by the end of this year to 137.5 percent of the design capacity of its 33 adult prisons.
An appeal of the panel's initial order to the Supreme Court went against the state in 2011.
The state's January motion says it has slashed inmate population as much as it can without risking the public's safety.
The Brown administration is adamant that, even though it has another 9,000 inmates to go before the population has sunk to the level required by the court, prison health care is no longer in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and it can be maintained that way without further reduction.
"The truth of the matter is that California has invested more than a billion dollars to transform its prison health care system into one of the best in the country," said Deborah Hoffman, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation assistant secretary, late Thursday. "Our prisons now provide timely and effective health care to inmates that far exceeds what the Constitution requires. Further forced reductions to the prison population would unnecessarily jeopardize public safety. We will appeal."
Attorneys for the inmates vigorously dispute the claim that their clients' health care is constitutional.
They acknowledge much progress has been made, but insist much is yet to be done.
In Thursday's order, the judges agree with the attorneys' assessment.
In a separate six-page order Thursday, the three judges give the state 100 days to submit a report to them on actions taken thus far "to identify prisoners who are unlikely to re-offend or who might otherwise be candidates for early release."
The judges noted that this was something the Supreme Court suggested in its decision two years ago. "Given the passage of time and defendants' failure to take all steps necessary to comply we now order" state officials to do so, "to the extent that they have not already done so."
Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.