SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Jerry Brown’s declaration Tuesday that California has solved its prison overcrowding problem is part of a bold move to wrest control of the nation’s largest corrections system back from the federal courts and their appointed overseers.
But experts say there is a slim chance of that.
“I think the court will respond very negatively,” said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford Law School professor and former corrections adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I would be very surprised if they moved an inch.”
Nevertheless, the Brown administration filed documents in Sacramento and San Francisco courts late Monday seeking to end federal control of inmate health care in the state’s 33 adult prisons and to lift a mandate that the state reduce its inmate population to about 110,000 prisoners.
Striking a defiant tone at a Capitol news conference Tuesday, Brown insisted that reforms have given California “one of the finest prison systems in the United States” and that “the job is now complete.”
“We can run our own prisons, and by God let those judges give us our prisons back,” he stated. “We’ll run them right.”
The power that federal judges exercise over state prisons is “intrusive,” no longer necessary and “nit-picky,” he said.
California’s prison system, currently housing 133,000 inmates, has been operating under court oversight to one degree or another for more than 25 years, primarily through two long-running class-action lawsuits.
One is filed in Sacramento on behalf of all seriously mentally ill inmates and the other in San Francisco on behalf of physically ill inmates.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton in Sacramento controls the care of mental patients through his appointed special master. U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of San Francisco controls the care of physically ill inmates through his appointed receiver.
All of this, in 2009, led to a finding by a three-judge court composed of Karlton, Henderson and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt that chronic overcrowding — at one point hitting 202 percent of designed capacity and resulting in warehousing inmates in gyms and other open areas — had reduced health care to an unconstitutional level, sometimes fatally.
Brown contends that most of those problems have been corrected and that the state cannot reduce inmate populations further without releasing convicted murderers and other violent felons.
But the lead attorney for the inmates says the state’s claims are false.
“There’s no factual basis for saying everything has been fixed,” attorney Michael Bien said. “I’m frankly disappointed because we’ve been spending decades working with the state to try and fix these problems and they’re not fixed.
“We’re about to enter into a war.”
At the heart of the issue is the number of inmates the state is keeping in prison. In 2006, about 162,500 inmates were being held in state prisons, more than twice as many as the system was designed to house.
Following a non-jury trial, the three-judge panel declared that conditions in the prisons were “horrific” and that the state must reduce the population to 137.5 percent of capacity, about 110,000 inmates, by June 2013.
California officials fought the order to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court sided with the three-judge panel. The state then began a concerted effort to dramatically reduce prison populations.
Since 2006, corrections officials say they have cut inmate populations by almost 42,000 through a series of parole reforms and a “realignment” program that shifted the responsibility for nearly 25,000 offenders deemed non-violent and non-serious to the counties.
State officials contend no inmates have been released early to alleviate overcrowding, and that the realignment program has helped drop the prison populations to about 145 percent of capacity.
That is as low as the state can or needs to go, Brown’s administration contends, saying that trying to get to 137.5 percent of capacity could result in “outright early releases of thousands of inmates convicted of murder or other serious felonies.”
In addition to saying the overcrowding problem is solved, Brown signed a proclamation Tuesday ending the emergency Schwarzenegger declared in 2006 that allowed thousands of inmates to be sent to out-of-state prisons. Brown said the 8,900 inmates housed outside California will begin to be returned starting in July.
That move could complicate inmate reduction efforts, but will reward a key Brown constituency: the prison guards union that has supported him and could realize additional jobs from the return of those prisoners.
The governor said his message to the courts is simple: “We’ve got it. Enough already.”
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Brown’s stance won immediate support from Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
“Our public safety realignment process is a well-planned and thoughtful path toward reducing our state prison population, and to this point we’ve been able to reduce the prison population without early release of serious and violent inmates,” Steinberg said.
“Any further reduction forced upon us by a federal court will create a serious and unnecessary risk to the safety of Californians.”
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In the state’s court filings, lawyers took pains to portray the overcrowding crisis as solved. While the U.S. Supreme Court included stark photographs of jammed gymnasiums and dayrooms in its 2011 opinion upholding the court-ordered population reductions, the state included photos of the same rooms in the new filings showing basketball courts and other areas empty of beds and being used for recreation and other original purposes.
State lawyers noted that construction of additional prison cells and installation of more hospital beds is nearing completion and will continue to alleviate crowding.
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Experts say the progress is noteworthy.
“I think most of us watching are actually quite pleased with the extent to which California has reduced its population,” said Petersilia, the Stanford law professor. “It’s absolutely true that no state in the history of the United States ever had such a dramatic reduction in its prison population, so going from 172,000 to 133,000 is progress at some level.”
She added, however, that there is not enough known about the inmates who remain in prison and whether they pose a threat to the public if released.
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The final say on what happens with the state’s prisons still rests with the federal courts, and inmate advocates made it clear Tuesday that they intend to vigorously oppose the administration’s motions to dismiss the class actions.
“It is foolish to suggest that the over-incarceration crisis in California is over,” said Will Matthews, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been pushing for sentencing reform to help address overcrowding. “We’re at 145 percent of capacity and that number speaks to the reality that the governor apparently is not willing to face.”
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