Governor Jerry Brown had recently refused to reduce the state’s inmate population any further, this Thursday the Federal court in California’s long running prison health case overrode the state laws ordering officials to free inmates early by increasing credits for good behavior. The ruling came from three-judge panel consisting of U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton and Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who had ordered four years ago to remove ten of thousands of inmates from an overcrowded prison system.
State officials have consistently sought a solution for the overcrowding problem, but with the new order inmates will face shorter sentencing by adding credits if prisoners receive them for good prison behavior and participate in work and education programs. The court announced on Thursday that the change will reduce the inmate population by as much as 5,385 this year, bringing California into compliance with the order on prison overcrowding and according to the state’s experts, would pose no danger to the public. Another alternative to the overcrowding problem is releasing inmates that have already been classified as “low risk” such as the elderly, the disabled, and some serving life sentences with the possibility of parole.
Both proposals have been rejected in the past by Governor Brown who stated “They would require changes in state law that he is unwilling to propose – and that would be dead on arrival in the Legislature, according to the state Senate’s Democratic leader, Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento. According to the court it was the only way to bring California compliance with the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment in its prison health care system. “We are compelled to enforce the Federal Constitution and to enforce the constitutional rights of all persons, including prisoners” said the panel.
The judges have ordered the state to report every two weeks on the steps it is taking to comply and would hold officials in contempt for noncompliance. Brown released a statement in response to the court’s orders “California will seek an immediate stay of this unprecedented order to release almost 10,000 inmates by the end of this year which includes prison transfers.”
Many of the lawsuits faced are due to over-populated prisons. Lawsuits were filed over prison mental health care in 1990 and over medical care in 2001. Henderson one of the supervising judge in the medical care case transferred prison health care to a court-appointed receiver in 2006 after finding out that poor treatment was killing one inmate per week. Just in 2009, the three-judge panel ruled that overcrowding was the primary cause of substandard health care, and ordered the state to reduce the inmate population by 33,000. The prisons were then filed to nearly twice their designed capacity, and now are at about 150% , with 119,000 inmates.
Brown has argued that prisons now provide first-rate health care and appealed the April-population reduction order to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the panel’s original order in 2011. The governor’s realignment program has even reduced the prison population by about 24,000 since October 2011. When the court had refused to withdraw its population order, Brown unwillingly submitted a plan May 2 to transfer some inmates to firefighting camps, private prisons and leased county jail cells – measures that would leave the population 4,170 above the compliance level by December 31 which led the state in 2001 to take away every excuse the governor presented.