Federal judges seeking to improve prison medical care called the state’s latest efforts insufficient Monday and ordered creation of a three-judge panel to consider capping California’s inmate population.
The move -- the first for a state prison system -- has the potential to prompt early release of inmates. Experts and elected officials, however, said that less-drastic measures might appease federal courts and that releases, if necessary, could be made in ways that minimize any threat to the public.
The rulings are an escalation of federal intervention in California’s prisons, which now house nearly 173,000 inmates, 17,000 of them in gymnasiums, day rooms, classrooms and other areas not designed as dormitories. Prompted by class-action lawsuits on behalf of inmates, federal courts have declared the level of medical and mental health care in the prison system unconstitutional and turned over healthcare operations to a court-appointed receiver.
Inmates’ attorneys sued to request a population cap in November 2006, five weeks after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prisons. The lawyers suggested that instead of releasing thousands of prisoners, state officials could use home detention, electronic monitoring or residential drug treatment programs to divert low-risk convicts and parole violators from prison.
“I’m really pleased,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in San Quentin. “We fought long and hard for this.”
In separate rulings, U.S. District Judges Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento and Thelton Henderson of San Francisco concluded that a $7.4-billion prison reform package enacted by the Legislature and Schwarzenegger in May could worsen prison conditions because it calls for adding beds without bolstering staff.
The judges expressed hope that the governor and Legislature would swiftly find ways to make early release of prisoners unnecessary.
Henderson called early release “a radical step.”
“This court would like nothing more than to have the three-judge court be able to enter a consent judgment without the need for a prisoner release order,” he wrote.
In a written statement, Schwarzenegger said he would appeal the ruling, but he also expressed confidence that recent efforts to reduce overcrowding -- including the forcible transfer of 40 inmates to a Mississippi prison last week -- would satisfy the courts. Nearly 400 inmate volunteers had already been sent to prisons in Arizona and Tennessee.
“Today, the federal judges encouraged the state of California to continue with our efforts to reduce overcrowding,” Schwarzenegger said. “The judges said that if we are successful, further population orders will not be necessary. There is no immediate threat of inmate release.
Karlton has issued at least 77 orders since February 1996 in his effort to bring proper screening and timely, skilled care to the mentally ill in California’s prisons.
Despite some progress, he wrote in his ruling, care remains in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on the infliction of “cruel and unusual” punishment.
State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) hailed the ruling as “profound” and “the right decision.”
She said the Legislature and executive branch in California have “largely abdicated their responsibilities” to operate effective, humane prisons.
She urged Schwarzenegger to sign her pending legislation, SB 110, which would create a sentencing commission to simplify and organize California’s 1,000 felony sentences and 100 felony sentence enhancements, which were largely passed piecemeal by the Legislature.
Romero also urged prison officials to begin figuring out which inmates might be suited to getting out of prison before finishing their sentences.
“To some extent we do early release already -- it’s called parole,” she said. “We have to take out our risk assessment measurements and figure out who might be eligible for release, because we’re going to have to have that ready when the judges convene that panel.”
Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange) called early release “not an option because it will jeopardize public safety” and said Assembly Republicans would try to intervene legally so that they can address the three-judge panel when it takes testimony to weigh a prison cap.
He expressed disappointment that Karlton and Henderson dismissed this year’s prison bond package, known as AB 900, as insufficient.
That legislation calls for construction of 53,000 prison and jail beds and creation of “reentry” facilities where inmates could get drug and alcohol treatment, anger management lessons, job training and other counseling before being paroled.
“When we passed AB 900, we were working on a time frame that acknowledged that we would address and solve the overcrowding by the middle of next year,” Spitzer said. “We had bipartisan support for AB 900, and we deserve -- and California deserves -- to allow that legislation to be fully implemented.”
Karlton concluded that the multibillion-dollar prison package would have no appreciable effect on overcrowding in the next two years, if ever. The legislation neglects the critical issue of staffing, he said, noting that every level of the mental health care system is already understaffed.
Henderson pointed out that the legislation will not create enough beds to house the projected population of the most dangerous inmates.
“It is unclear whether the legislation would reduce the impacts of overcrowding in any meaningful way,” he wrote.
Karlton and Henderson acted under a 1995 federal law that requires a panel of three federal judges to weigh a prison population cap before a limit can be imposed. That law dictates that the chief judge of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals -- Mary Schroeder of Phoenix -- appoint the panel, which must include the federal judge that issues the order convening the panel. Because in this case two judges have issued such orders, it is not clear whether Schroeder will appoint Karlton, Henderson or both to consider a cap.
It also is not clear how long the process will take, although Schwarzenegger administration legal experts said the panel could take testimony and ponder actions for as long as a year.
“They issue this order, the chief judge then appoints,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who is an expert on federal courts. “I think it’s pretty uncharted territory what happens after that.”
“I’ve seen reports saying they’re just going to release people,” Tobias said. “I think that’s too easy. I think it will be much more complicated than that.”
John Boston, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the New York City Legal Aid Society, said that only twice before have three-judge panels been created to address prison overcrowding.
In 1998 in Washington, D.C., lawyers on both sides agreed to a settlement that involved lowering the population of one facility to 1,200 from 1,400. And in Mahoning County, Ohio, in February, attorneys for inmates and the sheriff reached a settlement that called for no more than 315 male prisoners in the jail.
“What’s going on in California is the first time this process has been invoked on a statewide level,” Boston said.