PolitiCal

Federal judges order California to expand prison releases

Federal judges say California has to try to release more prisoners early to reduce unconstitutional crowding

Federal judges on Friday ordered California to launch a new parole program that could free more prisoners early, ruling the state had failed to fully implement an order last February intended to reduce unconstitutional crowding.

The judges, for a second time, ordered that all nonviolent second-strike offenders be eligible for parole after serving half their sentence. They told corrections officials to submit new plans for that parole process by Dec. 1, and to implement them beginning January.

"The record contains no evidence that defendants cannot implement the required parole process by that date, 11 months after they agreed to do so 'promptly,'" the judges wrote in Friday's order.

Corrections department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the agency would comply with the order.

But the federal judicial panel did not take action on other steps it had ordered California to take last February. Those include increasing the sentence reductions minimum-custody inmates can earn for good behavior and participation in rehabilitation and education programs.

Most of those prisoners now work as groundskeepers, janitors and in prison kitchens, with wages that range from 8 cents to 37 cents per hour. Lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.

Prisoners' lawyers countered that the corrections department could hire public employees to do the work.

The judges also have not resolved a dispute over the state's refusal to permit inmates with past sex offenses to earn the same sentence reductions now given to other second-strike felons.

California was first ordered to make these changes in February, when federal judges also agreed to give the state an additional two years to meet court-ordered population caps.

The state has been meeting periodic benchmarks set by the judges, but was also supposed to be making other changes that would produce a long-term, "durable" population reduction.

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