California prison crowding: 20-plus years of court fights

SACRAMENTO -- The decades-long battle over California prisons continued on Thursday as federal judges ordered Gov. Jerry Brown to begin releasing inmates to reduce overcrowding in state lockups.

The case is rooted in a 1990 lawsuit, when attorneys for state inmates said their constitutional rights were being violated because of inadequate mental-health care.


Years later, in 2001, another lawsuit was filed, charging the state with failing to provide sufficient medical care. A federal judge later concluded that inmates were dying unnecessarily, and appointed a receiver to run the prison medical system.

Those two cases, involving mental health and medical care, eventually formed the basis for a legal push to end overcrowding in state prisons, which in 2006 were holding twice as many inmates as they were designed for.

A panel of three federal judges concluded in 2009 that overcrowding was preventing inmates from receiving adequate care, violating their constitutional rights. They ordered the state to reduce the prison population to 137.5% of design capacity, which is roughly 110,000 inmates.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the order in 2011. Brown has made progress toward that target by sending low-level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons. But the state is now falling short of the court order, and Brown has resisted taking steps necessary to reach the population target by the end of the year.

The state is roughly 9,500 inmates short of the goal, and federal judges have threatened to hold Brown and other state officials in contempt of court for failing to comply.

A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll said California voters were split over whether prison overcrowding remained a problem, and they were wary of sacrificing public safety to reduce the inmate population.

But they were also willing to take more drastic steps than Brown wants to reduce the number of offenders in state prisons. Sixty-three percent said they favored released low-level, nonviolent inmates from prison early.


Twitter: @chrismegerian