SACRAMENTO — Federal judges on Monday gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap, the latest step in a long-running lawsuit aimed at improving inmate medical care.
But in doing so, the judges said they would appoint a compliance officer who will release inmates early if the state fails to meet interim benchmarks or the final goal.
The order from the three-judge panel delayed an April deadline to reduce the prison population to about 112,000 inmates. California remains more than 5,000 inmates over a limit set by the courts, even though the state has built more prison space and used some private cells.
"It is even more important now for defendants to take effective action that will provide a long-term solution to prison overcrowding, as, without further action, the prison population is projected to continue to increase and health conditions are likely to continue to worsen," the judges said in a five-page opinion scolding the state for more than four years of delay.
"Defendants have continually failed to implement any of the measures approved by this Court and the Supreme Court that would have safely reduced the California prison population and alleviated the unconstitutional conditions of medical and mental health care in the prisons," they said.
The judges chided the state for the delays, saying the pace cost taxpayers’ money while causing inmates to needlessly suffer. However, immediately enforcing the population cap would simply prompt the state to move thousands more inmates to private prisons in other states without solving the long-term crowding problem, the judges said.
Given that choice, they adopted the proposal outlined by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, which told the judges it can reach the population cap by the end of February 2016, with steps that include expanding a Stockton medical facility to house about 1,100 mentally ill inmates and freeing more than 2,000 inmates who are elderly, medically incapacitated, or who become eligible for parole because of an acceleration in awarding good-time credits.
The judges said the state also has agreed to consider more population-reduction reforms in the next two years, "including considering the establishment of a commission to recommend reforms of state penal and sentencing laws."
Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said he had no immediate comments. A message left with the governor’s press office was not immediately returned.
Had the special three-judge panel rejected the state’s request for more time, Brown said the alternative would have been to spend up to $20 million during the fiscal year that ends June 30 and up to $50 million next fiscal year to lease enough additional cells to meet the court’s order. The state expects to continue housing about 8,900 inmates in private prisons in other states.
With the delay, Brown says the state can spend $81 million next fiscal year for rehabilitation programs that would otherwise be spent to house inmates.
Inmates’ attorneys had wanted the judges to require the state to meet the population cap by May of this year.
"We’re very disappointed. We believe that there are substantial constitutional violations continuing right now, which result in prisoners suffering and dying because of prison overcrowding," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that represented inmates in the crowding lawsuit.
Specter said inmates’ lawyers are pleased the judges will appoint compliance officer to police the population reduction targets, which will bring "a certainty to the population reduction which hasn’t been there before."
The inmates’ attorneys could consider appealing the judges’ order, he said.