Three-judge panel compels California to expand “good time” credits to comply with federal order to reduce prison population

A three-judge panel has ordered California to expand “good time” credits to comply with a 2009 federal court order to reduce the state’s prison population to 137.5% of design capacity by Dec. 31, 2013 and to remedy longstanding constitutional violations of inmates’ access to adequate medical and mental health care, citing state officials’ continuing “defiance” and “deliberate failure” to fix the severe prison overcrowding problem.

“It is [the state’s] unwillingness to comply with this court’s orders that requires to order additional relief,” according to the panel’s order in Coleman v. Brown and Plata v. Brown. “There can be no reasonable dispute that [California officials] have failed to meet their obligations…[California officials] have now had almost four years to comply with this order, and we have afforded them another six months for ease of compliance…[State officials] have consistently sought to frustrate every attempt by this court to achieve a resolution to the [prison] overcrowding problem.”

Reaching the 137.5% benchmark would require the state to reduce the prison population by 9,636 inmates by the end of the year.

Read more: California presents “ugly” plan to comply with court order to reduce inmate population

The court issued the order after Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration knowingly filed a plan in May that would fall well short of meeting the 137.5% benchmark, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago.

To make matters worse, the court pointed out that all but one of the population reduction measures proposed in Brown’s plan would require legislative approval, which is high unlikely given that state lawmakers, including Senate Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg, have publicly stated that the proposed measures will not be passed.

Read more: CA Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg says legislature will not approve Gov. Brown’s plan to comply with federal court order to reduce prison population

And although the state claimed that its plan would lower the inmate population to 140.7%, the state admitted its plan can’t be fully implemented by the end of the year because the state needs at least 9 months to negotiate the necessary contracts with Los Angeles and Alameda county jails to increase incarceration capacities.

Citing the state’s own admissions, the three-judge panel pointed out that the state’s plan would realistically reach only 142.6% of design capacity by the end of the year, or 4,170 inmates short of the court-mandated population cap.

“[California] submitted a plan that at best would achieve essentially onlly half of the prisoner reduction required,” according to the panel. “Because [the state’s] plan does not comply with our order, this court hereby orders [the state] to implement an additional measure along with its plan that will bring [the state] into compliance: the expansion of good time credits.”

The order also required the state to “release the necessary number of prisoners” to reach the 137.5% population ceiling should the additional measure and the state’s prison reduction plan prove insufficient.

However, the court has granted the state discretion to revise the “good times” credit program and substitute the prisoners identified for release “so long as [the state’s] revision results in the release of at least the same number of prisoners” as the court has mandated.

“Despite all of our efforts, defendants’ conduct to date has persuaded this court that anything short of an order to implement specific population reduction measures would be futile,” according to the panel. “In the absence of further action by this court, defendants have guaranteed what would be the perpetual constitutional violations in the California prison system for the indefinite future. This court cannot permit such a result. We are compelled to enforce the Federal Constitution and to ‘enforce the constitutional rights of all ‘persons,’ including prisoners'”.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation last week filed a request to stay the court’s order to expand “good times” credits while the state appeals the continuing federal oversight of its state prison system to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“[The state] would be irreparably harmed absent a stay,” according the state’s filings. “A likelihood of irreparable harm exists here because…[the order] requires the state to take certain actions, which once initiated, cannot be stopped or undone. For instance, once good time credits are retroactively applied, or applied to specific classes of offenders, those credits cannot be rescinded, and thus individuals now incarcerated will be released before the completion of their terms.”

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