Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Judges tentatively approve prison inmate reduction

 A panel of three federal judges tentatively ruled Monday that California must reduce its prison population by up to 58,000 inmates in two to three years, saying that "the present state of overcrowding" makes it impossible for the state to deliver health care at a constitutional level.

The judges clearly said there are many avenues available to the state and counties other than an early-release program – like parole reform, increased good time credits and programs to reduce recidivism. They all fall under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act's definition of a "prisoner release order."

They will review the evidence presented at a 14-day non-jury trial and issue a final opinion, but the tentative ruling is meant "to give the parties notice of the likely nature of that opinion, and to allow them to plan accordingly," the judges said.

Inmates' attorneys expressed hope that, in the wake of the ruling, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his administration, legislative leaders, county representatives and all other affected parties will work out a settlement.

Reaction by Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate made that seem unlikely. Cate correctly said the 10-page tentative ruling calls for 37,000 to 58,000 fewer inmates within two to three years.

Speaking for himself and Schwarzenegger, the secretary said they "disagree with the panel's ruling," and with the release of that many convicts "onto California streets," which he called "a significant threat to public safety."

Attorney General Jerry Brown labeled the tentative ruling "a blunt instrument that does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals."

If the ruling becomes permanent, Cate declared, it will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. An appeal from the specially-convened panel bypasses the federal appellate level and goes directly to the high court, which could accept the matter for review, or let the ruling stand without review.

"This is not about overcrowding," Cate said. "We are providing a constitutional level of care now; so we have the right to keep these inmates in prison."

By contrast, the three judges said inmates' attorneys "have presented overwhelming evidence that crowding is the primary cause of the underlying constitutional violations."

They said conditions have "substantially increased the risk of the transmission of infectious illnesses among inmates and prison staff."

"It is our present intention," the panel said, "to adopt an order requiring the state to develop a plan to reduce the prison population to 120 percent or 145 percent of the prison's design capacity (or somewhere in between) within a period of two or three years." The judges noted the 33 adult prisons, with nearly 160,000 inmates, are operating at close to 200 percent design capacity.

The judges are Lawrence K. Karlton of Sacramento, who has presided for 19 years over an ongoing class-action lawsuit on behalf of mentally ill inmates; Thelton E. Henderson of San Francisco, who has presided for eight years over an ongoing class-action lawsuit on behalf of physically ill inmates and who put prison health care into receivership in 2006; and Stephen Reinhardt of Los Angeles, a judge of the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They are considered three of the most liberal judges in the nine-state appellate circuit.

"The state has a number of options … that would serve to reduce the population of the prison … without adversely affecting public safety," the judges said. "It could also use the savings that will result from the implementation of a population cap to provide for any increased burdens on the counties."

The judges acknowledged the state's $42 billion budget deficit and the fiscal implications of their final decision "are of the most serious order. There are simply no additional funds … being made available by the state to deal with the critical problem created by prison overcrowding."

California legislators expressed mixed views Monday about releasing inmates, but declined to specifically address the tentative ruling because they had not read it.

"I don't think we should be releasing prisoners early," said Assemblyman Ted Gaines, R-Roseville. "I think they're in prison because they created a threat to society. And I think we should do everything we can to keep them behind bars."

But Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, who sits on the Assembly Public Safety Committee, said that some prison inmates can be rehabilitated and released, thus relieving prison overcrowding without impairing public safety.

"I know there is a percentage of inmates who are in for less serious offenses who would not endanger the public directly, but there are always exceptions, and that's where we get in trouble," Ma said, adding that early release deserves scrutiny.

Inmate lawyer Michael Bien said the ruling "sends a message to the state to … work out a solution that is win, win, win – that is good for public safety, good for sick prisoners and helps solve the budget deficit.

Steven Fama, an inmate attorney, pointed to proposals by Schwarzenegger in the past two years – "parole reform," "release of about 20,000 inmates over about 20 months."

He said of the 140,000 inmates released each year, most served only a few months.

"It's just a matter of finding the ones that would create the least risk if released a couple of months early," Fama added.