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Judges grant delay in California’s prison crowding case

In the first glimmer of hope for Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to delay further reductions in California’s prison population, a panel of three federal judges agreed to a brief postponement Tuesday and ordered California officials and inmate attorneys to begin talking about solving the issue.

The judges, who had ordered California to reduce its inmate population by roughly 8,000 prisoners by Dec. 31, granted a postponement to Jan. 27.

The order falls short of the three-year postponement the Brown administration asked for in a Sept. 16 filing with the judges, but it may signal a willingness by the panel to consider the possibility of a compromise. The judges ordered both sides to “meet and confer, beginning immediately,” to discuss Brown’s request for more time.

The two sides are to meet confidentially and informally under the oversight of Justice Peter J. Siggins of the 1st District Court of Appeal. The judges indicated that Siggins should report back by Oct. 21 with recommendations on how to proceed. The judges also ordered the state not to “enter into any contracts or other arrangement to lease additional capacity in out-of-state facilities or otherwise increase the number of inmates who are housed in out-of-state facilities.”

Sending inmates to private prisons in California and out-of-state is part of Brown’s last-ditch effort to avoid releasing inmates to meet the court-ordered deadline, and officials with one private company, the Geo Group Inc., announced Monday it had signed contracts to provide 1,400 prison beds at its facilities in McFarland and Adelanto.

The three-judge panel has ruled – and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in 2011 – that California prisons are so overcrowded that the inmates’ physical and mental health needs are compromised. The state contends it has spent more than $1 billion correcting problems in the prisons and has done enough.

Both sides were cautious Tuesday about the larger meaning of the order, with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation issuing a statement that simply said, “The state is reviewing the order.”

The state already has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, and on Tuesday filed documents asking the high court to deny a request by inmate attorneys that the state’s appeal be dismissed.

“In our briefs, we have made a strong case for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the state’s appeal because the three-judge court rejected our showing that the population cap is no longer needed without ever examining the tremendous improvements to the prison health care system,” department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in an emailed statement.

Donald Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, said he did not believe Tuesday’s order reflects any sign that the three-judge panel may be inclined to further postponements.

“No, I think it’s neutral on that point,” Specter said, adding that “it’s a possibility” the inmate attorneys may be able to reach an agreement with the state.

“It orders us to engage with the state and see if we can come to an agreement about how the state could meet the court-ordered population levels without sending prisoners out of state,” he said.

The judges said they were seeking “a durable solution to the prison crowding problem” and ordered both sides to include discussions on juvenile inmates, three-strikers, elderly and infirm prisoners, and inmates who are under the purview of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The judges also directed the two sides to discuss implementing the “low risk list” of inmates the state was ordered to compile and said the two sides “may also discuss any necessary or desirable extension” of the original Dec. 31 deadline.

The judges’ order comes one day after Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg sent the panel a five-page letter outlining in detail how critical an extension of time would be to help California meet the court-ordered reductions in overcrowding.

“As I have previously indicated, California is at a crossroads: We can spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars annually to essentially rent more out-of-state, private prison beds, or we can invest in reducing the need for increased prison capacity through more effective local criminal justice practices and programs,” Steinberg wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

The court order does not mention Steinberg’s letter, which also was sent to the inmate attorneys, the governor and Assembly Speaker A. John Pérez.

Steinberg issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying he considered the order a sign of progress.

“This order is a positive development, providing an opportunity for the parties to craft a longer-term extension,” he said. “This is a moment in time where we can turn this expensive and ineffective freighter of our correctional system in a different direction.

“The state should spend only what is absolutely necessary on bed capacity. The majority of taxpayer resources in this area should be directed to proven ways to reduce the revolving door of offense, sentence, release, and re-offense.”

Steinberg and Brown reached agreement earlier this month on a far-reaching plan that appropriates $315 million that could be used to find beds for inmates in private prisons inside and outside California to avoid having to release inmates into communities to meet the court’s deadline.

The state formally asked the three-judge panel on Sept. 16 to grant a three-year postponement of its Dec. 31 deadline requiring California’s prison population to be reduced to 137.5 percent of capacity. Without a postponement or a way to find more prison beds, the state would have had to resort to releasing inmates, something Brown said he would not do because it would endanger the public.

The deal hammered out between Brown and Steinberg gave the state the ability to avoid a mass release. But Steinberg noted in his letter to the judges that a postponement of the Dec. 31 deadline would allow California to save the money it would spend on renting private and out-of-state beds and allow that money to be focused on rehabilitation programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

The efforts to improve conditions inside the state’s 34 adult prisons “represent the greatest reforms in our systems of criminal justice in over 30 years,” Steinberg wrote in his letter.

The prisons have a design capacity of about 82,000 inmates but currently house about 118,000, placing the current level at 144 percent of capacity.

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