Californians praise court order to immediately reduce prison population

Call for Legislature to cancel planned prison expansion and step up to the plate on sentencing reform

by Emily Harris

Sacramento – Earlier today, Gov. Brown was ordered by the federal three-judge panel to immediately reduce the prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity – to a total population of no more than 110,000. After the Brown administration filed an incomplete plan to the court in May and an appeal, the court is forcing the state to comply with the order by December 2013.

The governor issued this curt reply: “The state will seek an immediate stay of this unprecedented order to release almost 10,000 inmates by the end of this year.” The panel’s previous population reduction order was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The panel is composed of U.S. District Judges Lawrence Karlton and Thelton Henderson and U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson“The history of this litigation is of defendants’ repeated failure to take the necessary steps to remedy the constitutional violations in its prison system,” the judges wrote in today’s order.

According to the judges’ order, in addition to expanding fire camps and keeping people in out-of-state private prisons, the governor must either revise his proposed good-time credit policy, identify prisoners who are unlikely to reoffend and are good candidates for early release, or substitute any measure from the list he submitted to the court in May to reach the total reduction of 9,636 prisoners.

“The judges said Brown must expand good-time credits that will allow inmates to finish their terms early,” reports KABC. “Thursday’s order requires, absent other solutions, that the state give minimum-custody inmates two days off for every one served without trouble and to apply those credits retroactively. Such a step could spur the release of as many as 5,385 prisoners by the end of December,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

In order to implement elements of the plan, the court is immediately waiving all state and local laws and regulations.

“The court’s order is great news. For decades, California’s budget and communities of color have been torn apart by a stubborn insistence of locking more and more people up for longer and longer times, despite clear evidence that longer sentences do not increase safety,” notes Diana Zuñiga of Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

“We need to reverse this trend, and hopefully this is the first step. We hope that this decision will light a fire under the Legislature and Brown to follow the opinion of the majority of Californians and make substantive reductions to our prison population.”

“The history of this litigation is of defendants’ repeated failure to take the necessary steps to remedy the constitutional violations in its prison system,” the judges wrote in today’s order.

According to the 51-page order, the court will not credit the governor’s original plan to lease 1,600 jail beds from Alameda and Los Angeles counties towards the reduction. “The court’s decision that leasing jail beds would not be complying with the order builds on an earlier assertion that the state can’t build its way out of overcrowding and must actually lock up less people,” says Isaac Lev Szmonko of Critical Resistance.

“This order gives the Legislature ample reason to save itself millions of dollars by cancelling plans to expand three California prisons,” he notes. In 2012, the Legislature approved budget trailer bill SB 1022, which included $810 million to build in-fill beds at three sites.

“Republicans in the Legislature have pushed a plan to resume prison expansion in California,” however, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Since submitting a plan to the courts in May, the governor’s office has made little effort to seek legislative approval of a series of population reduction measures outlined in the plan. “Let’s be clear that the specific reforms that the governor and Legislature are resisting would let elderly, infirm and severely ill people live the rest of their lives outside of cages,” says Debbie Reyes of the California Prison Moratorium Project.

Gov. Jerry Brown by Russell Yip, SF Chron“It’s true cowardice on the part of our elected leaders to be advocating so stubbornly to continue to lock up grandparents. Today’s ruling creates the political cover to finally let some of our loved ones come home.”

“The order leaves Brown with no more excuses, said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office and one of the lead attorneys representing inmates’ welfare,” according to the Sacramento Bee.

“‘The court’s order is absolutely essential to maintaining prison conditions that protect prisoners from serious illness and death due to inadequate health care,’ Specter said. The court had no choice because Brown and Democrats who control the state Legislature were refusing to comply with its previous orders, he said,” the Bee reported.

“The governor’s reluctance to set prisoners free early has the backing of legislative leaders, including Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. He joked openly on Wednesday about intending to kill any population-reduction plans the courts might order the governor to submit to the Legislature,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

Gov. Brown also “had immediate backing from the California Police Chiefs Assn. The court order shows ‘a complete disregard for the safety of communities across California,’ said the group’s president, Covina Police Chief Kim Raney,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“‘Pressing for 9,000 more inmates on the streets,’ Raney said, shows ‘an activist court more concerned with prisoners than the safety of the communities.’”

In a statement issued this evening, the Chief Probation Officers of California also sided with Gov. Brown. Mack Jenkins, president of the organization and chief probation officer for San Diego said, “Probation has developed strategies and programs to protect our communities; however, further burdening our system with early releases as contemplated in the court order would serve to dramatically undermine these efforts.”

“The judges warned Brown in April that he could no longer ignore its orders,” the Sacramento Bee reports. “They opted in their latest order not to cite Brown for contempt, though they said they would be well justified if they were to ‘institute contempt proceedings immediately.’”

“They decided to delay a contempt citation until they see if the state complies with their new order. However, they warned that failing to comply now with the latest order ‘shall constitute an act of contempt.’”

“The order leaves Brown with no more excuses, said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office and one of the lead attorneys representing inmates’ welfare,” according to the Sacramento Bee.

“California voters may be more willing than Brown to release inmates to reduce crowding,” reports the Los Angeles Times. “In a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, they were wary of sacrificing public safety, but at the same time supported steps to reduce crowding.

“Sixty-three percent said they favored releasing low-level, nonviolent offenders from prison early.”

The court concludes that the state needs to follow the order and report to the court bi-weekly with specific steps regarding the implementation of the amended plan.

Emily Harris, statewide coordinator of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, can be reached at emily@curbprisonspending.org. Bay View staff contributed to this story from other media reports.