The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s appeal Tuesday in the state’s long-running prison overcrowding case, essentially giving California officials until Jan. 27 to figure out what to do with at least 4,400 inmates.
The court rejected the appeal, without comment, on the grounds that it lacked jurisdiction to handle the appeal. Attorneys for the inmates had argued in court filings that the high court already had decided the issue two years earlier in their favor.
The Supreme Court’s decision to reject the case means the state must follow an order by a panel of three federal judges that California’s inmate population be reduced to 137.5 percent of capacity by Jan. 27. The inmate population in the state’s 34 adult prisons was 120,359 as of Oct. 2, and the judges’ order requires that number be trimmed to 112,164, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Brown has said he would not allow a mass early release of inmates to achieve the reductions and instead would shift inmates to leased private prison cells. Beds identified by the state so far will leave about 4,414 inmates to be dealt with by the January deadline, and both the state and inmate attorneys have been ordered to discuss possible ways of settling the issue. The federal judges ordered both sides to come up with recommendations by Monday.
The state has argued that it has done enough to address chronic overcrowding that the courts found impeded inmates’ constitutional rights to mental health and medical care, spending billions of dollars in recent years on new prison medical facilities and improvements to health care.
The Brown administration said it was disappointed by the high court’s decision, noting it already has reduced the prison population through realignment, the administration’s effort to shift low-level, nonviolent offenders from state prisons to county jails.
“In the last two years, California has made the most significant reforms to our criminal justice system in decades, reducing the prison population by 25,000 inmates,” Deborah Hoffman, spokeswoman for the corrections agency, said in a statement.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said he hoped the ongoing talks between the state and inmate attorneys will result in a further postponement of the Jan. 27 deadline to give the state time to pursue additional rehabilitation programs. Last month, legislators passed a compromise bill to allow the state to spend $315 million on expanded prison-bed space to comply with the court order, if needed, and to focus on long-term drug and mental health treatment programs if the judges grant a further delay.
“While I have supported the governor’s efforts to appeal the population reduction order, the Supreme Court’s rejection of the state’s appeal is not unexpected,” Steinberg said. “This finality allows the state to move forward with a durable, long-term strategy to address the overcrowding crisis.
“I am hopeful that the court-ordered talks now underway will result in a long-term delay of the population reduction order and the investment in recidivism reduction contemplated by SB 105.”
Attorneys for the inmates hailed the court’s decision as yet another victory in their fight to reform conditions in the state’s prison system.
“The Supreme Court’s order dismissing California’s latest appeal of the three-judge court’s orders is a strong affirmation and message to the state: Your prisons are still dangerous and broken,” attorney Michael Bien said in a statement.
“There is still much work to be done to meet constitutional standards for medical and mental health care,” he added. “The federal courts will not accept a partial, symbolic fix that has not remedied fundamental and serious violations that are still causing unnecessary and avoidable pain, suffering and death.”
The two sides have battled in court for years over conditions inside the prisons and are scheduled to return to federal court in Sacramento on Wednesday for the resumption of a hearing into whether the state uses excessive force to extract mentally ill inmates from cells when they violate rules.