Update: KQED’s Peter Lollo spoke with Michael Bien, lead counsel for the class of mentally ill prisoners in Coleman vs. Brown, about today’s ruling.
“The key now is implementation,” Bien said. “The state needs to show that it’s really willing to stop putting its brake on these reforms and actually redouble its efforts to implement them.
“It’s time to face up to the three judge’s court orders and sit down and get the job done. There’s much more that needs to be done in California’s prisons to really bring them to a constitutional level.”
By Don Thompson
SACRAMENTO (AP) The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will not interfere with a previous order requiring California to cut its prison population by thousands of inmates, leaving Gov. Jerry Brown with just one more chance to persuade a lower court to delay or stop the releases.
The justices did not comment on their order, which leaves in place the earlier ruling by a panel of three federal judges requiring California to reduce its prison population by an additional 9,600 inmates to improve medical and mental health treatment.
Spokesmen for Brown and the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said they could not immediately comment.
Settlement talks continue
The decision came as state officials are in settlement talks with attorneys representing inmates. The state hopes to persuade the skeptical lower court judges that its latest plan will work.
Last month, Brown signed a bill allowing the state to spend $315 million this fiscal year to house thousands of inmates in private prisons and county jails unless the lower court postpones its deadline for reducing the prison population.
If the court agrees to a three-year delay, as the Legislature wants, the bill requires the state to spent part of the money on rehabilitation programs intended to reduce the inmate count over time.
Both proposals would replace a previous ruling that said the state can safely release more than 4,000 inmates by increasing good-behavior credits. The ruling also calls for early releases for elderly and medically incapacitated inmates and sending more inmates to firefighting camps and new facilities.
The lower court had threatened to cite Brown for contempt if he did not comply, but last month the judges ordered the state to negotiate with inmates’ attorneys toward a possible compromise.
In 2011, Supreme Court justices ruled that the lower court panel had the authority to order California to reduce inmate overcrowding as the key condition for improving conditions.
Court had three options
In considering the state’s appeal a second time, the high court had three options: affirming the three-judge court’s decision, dismissing it because of a lack of jurisdiction, or accepting the case on appeal.
“The appeal is dismissed for want of jurisdiction,” the court said, without further explanation. The court earlier this year rejected the state’s request to delay the lower court’s order, signaling that it was unlikely to consider the appeal.
At the heart of the case is a 2001 lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates who claimed medical treatment in the prisons was so poor it was leading to a death a week through neglect or malpractice.
The federal courts agreed, saying conditions were so bad that they violated inmates’ constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment.
In addition to spending billions of dollars on new medical facilities and staff, the state also has been ordered to reduce overcrowding, which was seen as a main obstacle to providing better health care. The state has also been forced to take similar steps to improve inmate mental health treatment, the subject of a separate lawsuit.
110,000 more inmates to be released
California’s state prison population already has been reduced by more than 46,000 inmates since 2006 to meet the federal court mandates. The judges have ordered that the population in the state’s 33 adult prisons be reduced to 137.5 percent of design capacity — or 110,000 inmates — by the end of this year.
In arguing against the inmate-reduction order, the Brown administration said the state would have to release serious and violent offenders. The governor also argued in court filings that the lower court has overstepped its authority under federal law.
Brown remained combative even after the lower court gave the state a one month reprieve from its year-end deadline for releasing prisoners, to allow time for the negotiations. Brown immediately filed a supplemental appeal with the Supreme Court objecting that the lower court simultaneously blocked the state from contracting to send more inmates to private prisons in other states.
“The (lower) court’s interest appears to be in legislating criminal justice policy by reducing the prison population through outright releases of inmates,” the administration said in its filing.
Brown argues that the population cap is no longer needed because prison health care has improved significantly. He also contends that the state lacks lower-risk offenders who could safely be released early because most of those already being sentenced to county jails instead of state prisons under a two-year-old state law — commonly referred to as realignment — that is designed to reduce prison overcrowding in response to earlier court orders.
But the high court’s refusal to intervene gives him little choice, unless he can negotiate more favorable terms with inmates’ attorneys.
“We hope that this means that the governor will finally realize that he has to comply with the court’s order and stop litigating, and use his energy and resources to reform the prison system,” said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office that filed the lawsuit over prison medical care.