California prisons: Supreme Court action a setback for Brown [Timeline]

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SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Jerry Brown’s attempt to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that California’s prison crisis is over stalled Tuesday when the justices refused to hear his appeal of court-ordered caps on the state’s prison population.

The decision means Brown may have to reduce that population by thousands of inmates by the end of January, the deadline set by a panel of three federal judges.

If that’s the case, the governor and lawmakers plan to rely heavily on housing inmates in private prisons, and a new contract was announced on Tuesday.


However, Brown administration officials are entering negotiations with lawyers for inmates to extend the deadline by three years, saying they could use the extra time to lower the prison population by expanding rehabilitation programs and reduce the number of former inmates returning to prison for new crimes.

Here’s a look at some of the key events in the long-running battle over prison overcrowding in California:

September 1995: Spurred by a class-action lawsuit, California’s prison mental health programs are placed under oversight of a special master. A federal judge criticizes state officials for their “recalcitrant refusal” to provide proper psychiatric care for inmates.

January 2002: Another class-action suit, alleging inadequate medical care in prisons because of overcrowding, is settled, with the state agreeing to overhaul its prison healthcare programs by 2008.

July 2005: A federal judge declares he will take control of the prison healthcare system. Control is transferred to a federal receiver in February 2006.

August 2009: The three-judge panel orders the state to cap its prison population at 137.5% of capacity, calling for release of nearly 43,000 inmates in two years to conform to constitutional standards. The order is ultimately put on hold pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.


May 2011: The Supreme Court upholds the 2009 ruling and orders the state to shed more than 33,000 inmates from prison rolls in two years. California officials soon begin sending low-level offenders to county jails instead of state lockups to reduce the prison population, a process called “realignment.”

January 2013: Realignment does not reduce the prison population enough to meet the court order, but Brown declares that “the prison crisis is over in California” and calls for returning the facilities to state control. The panel of federal judges does not rescind its order but agrees to extend the deadline for meeting the population cap from June 30 to Dec. 31.

June 2013: The judges order Brown to remove 9,600 inmates by the end of the year and threaten to hold him in contempt of court if he does not comply.

August 2013: Brown appeals the order to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the state begins preparing to comply. The governor announces a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to house inmates in private prisons and other facilities. Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is not on board and pushes his own proposal.

September 2013: A deal is reached between Brown and top lawmakers to seek another extension for complying with the court order. If the judges grant the extra time, the state would fund rehabilitation programs intended to reduce the prison population. The judges appear open to the possibility of an extension, and delay the deadline for one month to allow state officials and lawyers for inmates to discuss a resolution.

October 2013: The U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear Brown’s appeal. The decision means California will still be bound by the prison population cap imposed by the judges. The negotiations announced in September will determine how much time the state has to reach that goal.


Corrected Oct. 15, 11:30 a.m.: A previous version of this post inaccurately said mental healthcare was placed under control of a special master in 1995. The special master has oversight authority, but not control.


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Twitter: @chrismegerian