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California gets extra time to reduce prison crowding: another month

Gov. Jerry Brown now has until Feb. 24 to ease prison crowding by removing about 9,600 prisoners from state lockups.

October 21, 2013|By Paige St. John and Chris Megerian
  • Inmates are double-bunked in a dorm at the California Institution for Men near Chino.
Inmates are double-bunked in a dorm at the California Institution for Men… (Image filed in U.S. District…)

SACRAMENTO — Federal judges on Monday gave Gov. Jerry Brown an additional 28 days to meet their order to reduce prison crowding.

Brown, whose administration has been in court-ordered talks with inmates' lawyers in search of a long-term solution to overcrowding, now has until Feb. 24 to remove about 9,600 prisoners from state lockups.

The three-judge panel also said Monday that the negotiations must continue. State appellate judge Peter J. Siggins has been mediating those confidential talks, and on Monday he was told to provide another update in mid-November.

The judicial trio did not describe the state of the discussions in their order, and Siggins' report was confidential.

Last month, Brown filed a plan to expand rehabilitation services in hopes of eventually reducing new offenses by inmates who return to society, and he asked for three years to lower prisoner numbers that way. The judges gave him an extra month instead, moving their deadline to Jan. 27 from Dec. 31 and ordering the talks.

Corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said Monday the agency was pleased by the judges' extension of their deadline and would work with local government and law enforcement groups to "build upon California's landmark reforms to our criminal justice system."

Inmate advocates and civil rights groups want the state to take a different path from the one Brown has outlined in court filings. The groups want reductions in criminal penalties, expanded parole programs for the sick and old, and a backlog cleared for thousands of prisoners eligible to have their cases reheard.

California is halfway toward meeting the judges' inmate population cap through contracts for 3,180 beds in privately owned facilities and an increase in the number of prisoners sent to firefighting camps around the state.

The latest contract, announced Monday, is an $11-million, five-year deal with the private prison company Geo Group. California already has 8,300 prisoners in private prisons in other states, but the federal judges have temporarily blocked further such transfers.

In 2009, federal judges ordered California's prison population reduced, declaring that overcrowding was the root of unconstitutionally poor inmate care. Despite construction of a new medical prison and a court-run healthcare system, lawyers for prisoners say that care remains substandard and that mentally ill prisoners are mistreated.

California's corrections department "has never taken its obligation to provide basic healthcare seriously," said Don Specter, lead attorney for the Prison Law Office, testifying Monday at a legislative hearing on the state's prison problems.

The hearing was mostly a basic briefing, and no corrections officials testified. Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) said the next hearing, Nov. 13, will focus on alternative programs and sentencing.

Brown has taken the position since January that California's prison conditions are vastly improved. But court experts have continued to report poor medical services at some prison hospitals. A federal court has refused to relinquish control over mental health services, and the U.S. Supreme Court has rebuffed Brown's attempts to appeal capacity limits that he argues are arbitrary.

A report last week from the corrections department shows California's prison population up by more than 500 from a year ago, to more than 133,860 inmates.

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

chris.megerian@latimes.com

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