Analysts see hope for California prison overcrowding solution

Federal judges are granting California Gov. Jerry Brown an extra month to fix crowding in California prisons.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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SACRAMENTO — The state and the courts have been at odds for years over whether California’s prisons are too crowded, but a new ruling this week offers a glimmer of hope that there’s a middle way forward, analysts said Wednesday.

The big question is what the governor is willing to do.

On Tuesday, a panel of three federal judges gave Gov. Jerry Brown a surprise one-month reprieve of their order to remove more than 9,600 inmates from state prisons by year’s end.

After long having shown impatience with Brown’s pleas for more time, the judges indicated they were open to a longer extension if he and lawyers for inmates could agree on how to shrink the prison population for the long term.


“The court has given a month with the express hope that the two sides can work out a meaningful settlement,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law. “It really depends on whether Gov. Brown is now willing to do so.”

Brown declared recently that he would not let inmates, who have sued the state over prison conditions, rewrite corrections policies.

“It would not be responsible to turn over California’s criminal-justice policy to inmate lawyers who are not accountable to the people,” Brown said last month, after state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) proposed settlement talks similar to those ordered by the judges this week.

On Wednesday, Brown remained defiant as his administration filed a new brief with the U.S. Supreme Court. The governor has appealed to the high court to overturn the three judges’ order on the 9,600 inmates.

In the new filing, state officials say they have “no opposition to participating” in the talks ordered by the panel.

But they also maintain that Tuesday’s order, which blocked the state’s plan to send thousands of inmates to out-of-state prisons, was out of line. The filing says the three judges overstepped their authority and asks the high court to intervene.


Brown submitted a plan to the three judges last week that could have involved sending thousands of inmates to lockups in other states and placing about 2,500 more in privately owned facilities in California.

“This order, like the court’s other recent actions, disregards the law and the role of the judiciary,” the governor’s lawyers argue in the Wednesday brief.

Others said the judges had offered a blueprint for compromise, echoing a set of solutions proposed Monday in a letter to the court from Steinberg.

The senator suggested that the three judges order discussions about alternative measures to relieve crowding. Those measures could include reviewing California’s incarceration of federal immigration detainees and increasing resources to speed parole hearings for juvenile offenders and people serving life sentences, Steinberg wrote.

Those ideas were among the issues the jurists ordered the state to discuss with prisoners’ lawyers.

The order “represents the possibility of a major breakthrough,” Steinberg said Wednesday.

The judges’ order said the talks, to begin immediately and to be run by Justice Peter J. Siggins of California’s 1st District Court of Appeal, are to be confidential.


The ACLU’s criminal justice director in Northern California, Kim Horiuchi, said the closed doors could defuse much of the political rhetoric that can prevent compromise.

“That’s the beauty of it being confidential,” she said.

The court’s assignment of Siggins as mediator is also significant, said Joan Petersilia, a criminologist and law professor at Stanford Law School. Siggins has been involved in the case in the past and is trusted by both sides, she said.

Don Specter, a lead attorney for the inmates who sued the state over prison conditions, has been down this road before, to no avail.

“It’s hard to be too optimistic after all these years of frustration,” Specter said. “But we are going into this with an open mind, and we will make a good-faith effort to reach an agreement.”

The two sides sat down twice before, Specter said, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor — just before and just after a crucial trial in 2008 over prison crowding. Neither discussion bore fruit, Specter said.

Susan Kennedy, who was Schwarzenegger’s senior policy advisor, said the political dynamics were different then.


In 2008, the state had 18,000 inmates sleeping on bunks stacked three high in what were supposed to be gymnasiums.

“Now, you are down to the last 10,000 [inmates], and these are not guys you want on the street. There’s no fast solution to this.”

Times staff writer Paige St. John contributed to this report.