Judges Say Talks on State Prison Cap Have Failed; They’ll Impose a Solution

Inmates at Chino State Prison. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Inmates at Chino State Prison. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The three federal judges overseeing the reduction of California’s prison population say state officials and inmates’ lawyers have failed to reach a long-term agreement to deal with overcrowding — so the court will decide for them.

The three-judge panel has ordered the state to cut the number of inmates in the state’s prison’s to 137.5 percent of their design capacity — about 112,000 prisoners in all. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is under an April 18 deadline to comply with the panel’s order, but has sought a two-year extension. The state has been negotiating with inmate lawyers to come up with a long-term plan to present to the court, which had given them until Friday to find a mutually agreeable solution.

The three judges — U.S. District Court Judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco, Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento and Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — issued a brief order giving the two sides 10 days to file their proposals for meeting the prison inmate limit. Based on those proposals and brief responses from each side, the judges said they’ll issue a decision on the state’s request for an extension.

The language in today’s order (embedded below) can be read as impatient, if not exasperated:

This Court has repeatedly extended the meet-and-confer process, and by virtue thereof the date for the State’s compliance, in hopes that the parties could reach agreement on how this Court can best ensure a durable solution to the prison population problem as required by our orders of August 4, 2009, June 30, 2011, and June 20, 2013. It now appears that no such agreement will be reached, and the Court therefore intends to issue an order within the next 30 days as to whether it will grant, deny, or grant in part and deny in part the State’s request for an extension of time in which to comply with those orders.

The panel also warned that the proposals from each side should be practical and suited to attaining lasting compliance with the prison population cap:

These proposed orders shall not be statements of the parties’ ultimate wishes but, rather, shall include those terms, and only those terms, that the parties believe are best suited to achieve durable compliance with this Court’s orders to maintain a prison population of no more than 137.5 percent design capacity.

In a statement, Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said, “We are hopeful the court will recognize that the state has made significant reforms to our criminal justice system and will allow us an extension so we can build upon these landmark reforms.”

The department said the 137.5 percent population limit would allow about 112,000 inmates in the system’s 34 facilities. The current population is just over 118,000.

As Paige St. John reports in the Los Angeles Times, the delay in deciding whether to give the state more time to meet the 137.5 percent limit will have an immediate impact on Gov. Jerry Brown’s new budget.

For now, California will still be blocked from expanding its contracts with private prison operators for cells out of state. And it means a short delay before Brown and state lawmakers learn if California will need to spend a planned $315 million to expand private prison leases, or just $228 million to keep those lease contracts at their current level. If the crowding deadline is pushed back to 2016, as Brown seeks, the governor pledges to give $81 million of the savings to counties for prisoner rehabilitation programs.

  • Gina

    Jerry Brown is a major part of this problem, he has always been in the pockets of CCPOA and never has ever wanted to let anyone out of prison no matter what. In reality he has created the problem and has always cried wolf in the name of public safety. CDcr never has had any Corrections just punishment with no recourse. He needs to do away with indeterminate sentencing and mandatory minimums and put a stop to the gulag Isolation units that create an atmosphere of Severely Negative Consequences of prisoners creating mental and physical health to their success in positively integrating back into society leaving the public and society with paying the cost financially and insuring that the revolving door continues to pay big buck tax profit to CDcr. He needs to Stop Criminalizing the Mentally Ill for acting out there untreated Illness and provide the Mental Health that is desperately needed.

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Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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