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US Ruling: California Must Cut Prison Population

by Bob Egelko

A federal court panel ordered California on Tuesday to reduce the population of its bulging prisons by 40,000 over the next two years to meet constitutional standards for inmate health care and said it could be done without releasing dangerous prisoners to the streets.

Inmates are warehoused in three-tier bunks in the former recreation room at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, CA. "The convergence of tough-on-crime policies and an unwillingness to expend the necessary funds to support the population growth has brought California's prisons to the breaking point," the three-judge panel said. Unless the courts intervene, the panel said, inmates will continue to suffer and die needlessly because prisons lack the space and the staff to treat them.

By changing parole practices and releasing some low-risk inmates to local custody, treatment programs or electronic monitoring, the prison population can be reduced "without a meaningful adverse impact on public safety," the judges said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration immediately announced that it would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state needs to reduce prison crowding on its own, by lowering the inmate population and building more prisons, but "we just don't think the federal courts should be ordering us to take those steps," state Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said.

Don Specter, a lawyer for prisoners who sued the state over health care, said the ruling allows California to "finally fix the horrible problems caused by prison overcrowding, and do so in a way that will not harm public safety but will make us all safer."

Differing opinions

The ruling "means we can't continue to sit on our hands," said state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee.

But Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster (Los Angeles County), a party leader on prison issues, said the effect of the ruling would be "releasing dangerous inmates into every community in the state."

The panel underscored its conclusion, first announced in a tentative ruling in February, that crowding in prisons - now jammed to nearly twice their intended capacity of 80,000 - was the primary cause of woeful health care.

One panel member, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco, appointed a receiver to manage state prison health care in 2006 after finding that shoddy treatment was killing an average of an inmate a week.

"The medical and mental health care available to inmates in the California prison system is woefully and constitutionally inadequate and has been for more than a decade," the panel said.

45-day deadline

The panel gave state officials 45 days to submit a plan that would lower the population of the state's 33 prisons from 150,000 to 110,000 within two years, leaving the prisons at 137.5 percent of their designed capacity.

Such a reduction can be largely accomplished, the court said, by ending California's unique practice of returning parolees to prison for minor parole violations.

Most of those parolees could be handled more effectively and cheaply in local treatment and work-furlough programs, electronic monitoring, and, if necessary, county jails, the panel said.

Inmates considered to pose "low to moderate risk" could have their sentences shortened by several months for taking part in rehabilitation, education or work programs, the panel said.

Governor's ideas

Schwarzenegger has endorsed similar proposals in the last two years. He has also proposed transferring as many as 19,000 illegal immigrant inmates to federal custody for deportation and updating grand-theft laws to keep pace with inflation, which would reduce felony convictions. His administration has transferred 7,900 inmates to prisons in other states.

Cate, the governor's top prison official, said the administration's proposals would lower the prison population by 35,000 to 37,000 over two years. As soon as the bond market improves, he said, the state also intends to begin work on 9,000 to 10,000 prison beds with bond funding the Legislature has approved.

"We think they're sound measures that will reduce our prison population in a safe way over time," Cate said. But he said a federal court order is "a dangerous precedent" that, state officials believe, violates a federal law limiting judges' authority over prisons.

The issue flared in the Legislature last month when Schwarzenegger attached his population-reduction plan to a $1.2 billion cut in prison spending. Republicans refused to approve any prisoner releases and threatened to hold up the entire state budget, forcing the governor to withdraw the details while leaving the spending cuts in place. Lawmakers will decide how to reduce the prison budget when they return to Sacramento late this month.

Staff writer Wyatt Buchanan contributed to this report.

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