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Gov. Jerry Brown calls on feds to give up oversight of prisons

California governor seeks changes such as an end to inmate population caps, but advocates worry a lack of U.S. control will cut quality of care.

January 08, 2013|By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times
  • “We spent billions of dollars” complying with the federal court orders, Gov. Jerry Brown said. “It is now time to return control of our prison system to California.”
“We spent billions of dollars” complying with the federal… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — A combative Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday declared that "the prison crisis is over in California" and demanded an end to years of intervention by federal judges and expensive edicts designed to reduce crowding and improve inmate healthcare.

"At some point, the job's done," Brown said at a Capitol news conference before catching a plane for Los Angeles, where he repeated the message. "We spent billions of dollars" complying with the court orders, the governor said. "It is now time to return control of our prison system to California."

Brown's push came as the state was faced with a deadline to produce a plan to further shrink the number of inmates in its 33 prisons. Late Monday night, the administration unveiled its proposal — "under protest" — but also filed motions calling for an end to caps on the inmate population and judicial oversight of mental health care.

The state also planned to seek to end federal control over all forms of inmate healthcare, the governor said.

"We can't pour more and more dollars down the rat hole of incarceration," Brown said Tuesday.

While acknowledging court intervention had forced vast improvements to a system that was in crisis, Brown said overly intrusive judges had unleashed a feeding frenzy of highly paid attorneys "running around the prisons looking for problems."

And using scarce state dollars to "gold plate" the prison system was not justifiable, the governor said. On Thursday, he plans to unveil his fiscal 2014 spending blueprint for the state, which faces a $1.9-billion shortfall.

The judges presiding over class-action inmate lawsuits have not responded to Brown's motions. However, they repeatedly have rejected, most recently in October, California's arguments that it can deliver adequate healthcare without meeting court-mandated population ceilings.

Brown vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if his latest motions are denied.

California prison healthcare has been under federal control since 2005, when U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson declared "extreme measures" were needed to fix a system that killed an inmate a week through incompetence or neglect. In 2007, Henderson and judges overseeing two other inmate class-action suits formed a panel to tackle the problem of overcrowding. At the time, the state housed 161,000 inmates.

The population now hovers around 119,000 — about 50% more than state facilities were designed to hold. Some prisons are at 180% of their intended capacity.

The federal courts set a June 2013 deadline to reduce that total to 137.5%. The state says it now expects to exceed the cap by 9,000 inmates.

On Tuesday, Brown argued those numbers were meaningless in light of improved inmate healthcare. He further called the design capacity of the state's prisons "an arbitrary number."

But former state prisons chief Jeanne Woodward disputed the governor's assertion and said she worried that without federal intervention, the governor and Legislature would find it easier to cut funding for improvements such as new healthcare facilities.

"Without court oversight, resources tend to get taken away," said Woodward, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley School of Law.

Inmate advocates also argued that California's work was far from done.

"Prisoners are continuing to die from inadequate medical care," Rebekah Evenson, an attorney for the Prison Law Office, representing California inmates, told the court in response to Monday's motions. She is among those who have asserted that the state never expected to meet the court's population caps and that officials have operated in bad faith.

As evidence, inmate advocates point to climbing prison suicide rates and a finding by the medical receiver's office of 43 preventable inmate deaths in 2011. Those cases included a man whose blood pressure plummeted after he was given too much heart medication and another whose skin cancer went untreated for nine months.

Brown's open defiance of further federal intervention marks a shift in California's strategy to take back control of its prison system.

When the Supreme Court in 2011 upheld federal oversight, the governor used the ruling as leverage to secure support for his plan to shift custody of low-level felons and most parole violators to the counties.

The mass "realignment" gave responsibility for would-be state prisoners to county jails and treatment programs. However, the bulk of its impact on reducing the state prison population was reached in September.

On Monday, forced to file a plan to further reduce crowding, the state proposed moving higher-risk inmates than are currently allowed into fire camps, letting prisoners further trim their sentences with good behavior and extending the use of private prisons.

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