Federal judges order California to release 43,000 inmates
Federal judges call conditions in the prisons 'appalling' and unconstitutional. A reduction plan is due by mid-September.California must shrink the population of its teeming prisons by nearly 43,000 inmates over the next two years to meet constitutional standards, a panel of three federal judges ruled Tuesday, ordering the state to come up with a reduction plan by mid-September.
The order cited Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's own words when he proclaimed a state of emergency in the corrections system in 2006 and warned of substantial risk to prison staff, inmates and the general public, saying "immediate action is necessary to prevent death and harm."
The governor and most legislative leaders back a plan that would reduce prison populations by as many as 37,000 over the next two years using a combination of early releases, changes in parole policies and shifting of some prisoners to county jails.
Debate on that plan will be contentious, with many Republicans opposed. But the judges' ruling means that defeating the plan would not only unravel a major piece of the budget agreement but also potentially cede decision-making over prison policies to the federal courts.
"The constitutional deficiencies in the California prison system's medical and mental health system cannot be resolved in the absence of a prisoner release order," the judges concluded.
They stopped short of issuing a release edict, though, giving state officials 45 days to come up with their own plan for reducing overcrowding while observing that alternatives to release, such as building new prisons, were "too distant" and unlikely to be funded.
Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said the state would comply with the order to produce a plan, but repeated criticism that the judges had ignored significant improvements made in recent years.
He said he doubts the U.S. Supreme Court, to which state officials could appeal any release order, would find that current prison conditions violate the Constitution.
"The courts are ordering the state to come up with a plan to release all these prisoners, but the question is: Which prisoners? Release to what -- halfway houses, GPS monitoring? And what happens when they commit another crime -- do they come back? There's a lot that is not clear," Brown said.
The governor's plan would allow the state to place on home detention prisoners with less than a year left on their sentences and those who are elderly or infirm. It would also change sentencing and parole rules to reward those who show evidence of rehabilitation.
But Schwarzenegger may be reluctant to use the courts as a hammer to push his plan through. Administration officials have repeatedly said that the court has overstepped its boundaries. The overcrowding problem, Cate said, is a state problem that needs to be fixed by the governor and lawmakers.
"It is not the job of the federal court to do this," he said.
The judges pointedly rejected any notion that conditions have improved. Citing testimony during last year's trial by some of the nation's foremost prison administrators, the judges said the experts reported "they have never previously witnessed such appalling prison conditions."
Until overcrowding is reduced, the state will be unable to provide "constitutionally compliant care," concluded the panel comprised of U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton, and U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt.
The judges said overcrowding at prison reception centers approaches three times designed capacity, frustrating prison intake officials' ability to identify incoming prisoners with medical or mental health problems.
Overcrowding has led to conditions that contribute to the spread of disease, require increased use of lockdowns to control inmates, and impede authorities' ability to provide essential healthcare, the judges said. It also "worsens many of the risk factors for suicide among inmates and increases the prevalence and acuity of mental illness," they added.
Conditions are "often dangerous, and on many occasions fatal," the judges said, alluding to reports that California inmates die of treatable or avoidable illnesses at the rate of one per week.
[This is an excerpt. Here is the full article.]