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Brown gets an extra month to relieve prison crowding

Federal judges extend the deadline for compliance to Jan. 27 and direct the state and inmate lawyers to begin talks immediately on possible solutions.

September 25, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • 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…)

BAKERSFIELD — Federal judges Tuesday gave Gov. Jerry Brown an extra month to meet their order to relieve prison crowding, directing his administration to negotiate with inmates’ lawyers in the meantime for long-term solutions to the problem.

Saying confidential talks between the state and the inmates’ representatives must begin immediately, the judges pushed their Dec. 31 deadline to Jan. 27 and ordered the two sides to report back to them by Oct. 21.

Their directive says the discussions should focus on “how this Court can ensure a durable solution to the prison crowding problem.”

The governor had asked for a three-year delay of a three-judge panel’s edict that about 9,600 prisoners be removed from California’s lockups. In return, he promised to relocate about 2,500 prisoners quickly and to fund rehabilitation programs intended to ultimately lower the number of repeat offenders going to prison.

Without a postponement, Brown said, he would instead expand relocation of inmates to private prisons in other states, a costly prospect opposed by advocates for prisoners and their families.

In Tuesday’s order, the judges told the state to halt negotiations for out-of-state prison beds.

Brown’s office had no comment Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the state corrections department said the agency was reviewing the order.

Don Specter, lead attorney for the Prison Law Office, which represents inmates in class-action lawsuits over California prison conditions, said he did not believe the one-month delay would make a significant difference after years of fighting between the state and the courts over whether the prisons are too crowded.

But “we’re always willing to try and negotiate an agreement that will benefit the state and the prisoners,” he said.

The ACLU, which had pressed Brown to consider options beyond private prison beds, hailed the judges’ order. Kim Horiuchi, ACLU’s Northern California director of criminal justice policy, said she was “hopeful” that the state would negotiate in good faith.

Brown recently signed legislation allocating $315 million to pay for a combination of private prison beds and mental health treatment and other rehabilitation programs. Last week, he used the legislation as a basis for his petition that the judges postpone the population limits.

The judges’ Tuesday order specifies a list of other options that Brown and inmates’ lawyers must consider in their talks, including some the governor has opposed, such as parole of elderly or medically frail inmates.

The order also directs the two sides to discuss the early release of other low-risk prisoners and “any other means, including relocation within the state,” that have been offered as solutions to the crowding problem.

“We’re hopeful the state will be receptive to those options,” Specter said.

The jurists also want the confidential discussions to include state policies governing the incarceration of juvenile offenders now eligible for special parole consideration under a bill recently signed by Brown. And they suggest that the state address how courts are handling a backlog of 2,000 prisoners waiting for resentencing hearings under California’s eased three-strikes law.

The judges also offer the governor an enticement to consider prison management alternatives, saying, “The parties may also discuss any necessary or desirable” further extension of the deadline.

Meanwhile, Brown’s lawyers filed a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, continuing to press for the high court to overturn the jurists’ insistence that inmates be removed from the state’s prisons. Brown has long vowed to pursue his appeal to its end.

In their brief, the lawyers contend that the three judges are overstepping federal laws intended to balance judicial oversight with a state’s authority to run its prisons as it sees fit.

Horiuchi expressed dismay that state officials were continuing with their appeal.

“We’re hopeful they’ll reconsider such a dogged position,” she said.

In May, the judges rejected Brown’s claim that prison conditions were so improved that population caps were no longer needed.

On Tuesday, state corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the jurists had made that decision “without ever examining the tremendous improvements to the prison healthcare system.”

Since then, experts hired by the courts have recently submitted reports citing inadequate medical and mental healthcare in several state prisons. On Tuesday, the court’s monitor of prison mental healthcare submitted a report citing chronic staffing shortages and delayed psychiatric care at a Salinas Valley prison.

He requested that the state be ordered to hire more psychiatrists, increase therapy and move mentally ill prisoners into vacant beds in the Salinas Valley psychiatric ward.

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

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