Three-judge panel grants California a two-year extension to comply with prison population cap


A three-judge panel on Monday granted California a two-year extension to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design bed capacity. 

The inmate population reduction order was issued in 2009 – and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 – in response to the Plata and Coleman class action lawsuits that blamed severe and chronic overcrowding in California’s prisons for the widespread denial of basic medical and mental health care to inmates, which amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

Read more: California seeks two year extension to comply with prison population reduction order

The latest ruling moved the deadline for the state to meet the 137.5% prison population cap from April 18, 2014 to Feb. 28, 2016.

Judges Stephen Reinhardt, Ninth District Court of Appeals; Lawrence K Karlton, U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of California; and Thelton E. Henderson, U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California acknowledged their reluctance in granting the extension because the state has “continually failed to implement any measures approved by this Court and the Supreme Court that would have reduced the California prison population and alleviated the unconstitutional conditions of medical and mental health care in the prisons.”

However, the judges were left with few options given that Gov. Jerry Brown has threatened to move about 8,900 inmates to out-of-state private prisons to comply with the population cap without the extension.

The judges deemed the out-of-state transfers to be “neither durable nor desirable”, pointing out that “it would result in thousands of prisoners being incarcerated hundreds or thousands of miles from the support of their families, and in hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent on long-lasting prison reform being spent instead on temporarily housing prisoners in out-of-state facilities.”

“While we are reluctant to extend the deadline for two more years, we also acknowledge that the [state has agreed] that, with such an extension, they will implement measure that should result in a durable solution to prison overcrowding in California…We recognize that these measures should have been adopted much earlier,” according to the court’s opinion. “Nevertheless resolving the conditions in California prisons for the long run, and not merely for the next few months, is of paramount importance to this Court as well as to the people of this State.”

Read more: Gov. Jerry Brown proposes increasing prison spending by 2.1%

The state’s prison population is current at 144% of design bed capacity. Under the new benchmarks ordered by the court, California will have to reduce its inmate population to 143% of design capacity by June 30th; 141.5% of design capacity by Feb. 28, 2015; and 137.5% of design capacity by Feb. 28, 2016.

The court’s order also bans the state from transferring approximately 8,900 inmates to out-of-state facilities and ordered the state to “explore ways to attempt to reduce the number of inmates housed in out-of-state facilities to the extent feasible”.

Read more: Spotlight: California Prison Capacity Expansion

The state is ordered to comply with the benchmarks by:

  •  leasing more beds in county and local jails as well as an in-state private prison;
  •  increase good time credits prospectively for non-violent second-strike offenders by 33% and minimum custody inmates by 2 for 1, which would allow them to be released earlier than otherwise;
  •  allow non-violent second strike offenders to be eligible for parole after serving 50% of their sentence;
  •  expand medical parole for ill inmates;
  •  expand parole for inmates who are 60 years or older and have already served at least 25 years of their sentence;
  •  open and operate 13 re-entry hubs within 1 year;
  •  re-allocate funds from SB 105 that would have gone to paying for out-of-state prisons to recidivism reduction programs;
  •  and expand pilot re-entry programs with counties and local governments.

In addition, the court has appointed a compliance officer to ensure that California meets the population benchmarks. And if the state fails to meet the new benchmarks, the court may direct the release of inmates – with the exception of inmates on death role or serving life sentences without possibility of parole – “necessary to achieve compliance”.

In exchange for the two-year extension, the state has agreed to not appeal or modify the court’s ordered reduction or “any order issued by the compliance officer”.

“It is encouraging that the Three-Judge Court has agreed to a two-year extension. The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer,” said Brown in a written statement.


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