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Federal Three-Judge Panel Orders California To Reduce Prison Population By 44,000 Prisoners Within Two Years

In a landmark ruling, a federal three-judge panel ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to cap the prison population of its 33 adult prisons to 137.5% of their 79,828 design capacity, or 109,763 prisoners, within two years.
Since the present population (counting only those housed in CDCR’s 33 adult prisons) is approximately 154,000, this means cutting 44,000 prisoners. The August 4, 2009 order commands CDCR to present to the court, within 45 days, its plan to accomplish this.

The order is the inevitable result of decades of obfuscation by prison authorities who failed to heed numerous previous court rulings. It brings closure to two decades-old prisoner cases dealing with constitutionally inadequate health care and mental health care, Plata v. Schwarzenegger and Coleman v. Schwarzenegger. The primary cause of the deficiencies was unmistakable to the court: overpopulation. California’s adult prisons were designed to handle approximately 80,000 adult men and women, but were lately being operated at an average of 190% of design capacity. The resultant lack of adequate healthcare from this overcrowding resulted in over 60 unnecessary deaths per year, the court found. In addition, the suicide rate due to inadequate mental health care was 25 per 100,000 (77% preventable), almost twice the national average. Under the U.S.
Constitution, the court ruled, human beings were entitled to better. Today, they got it.

In February 2009, the same three-judge panel issued a tentative ruling warning that if the state didn’t knuckle under, up to 57,000 prisoners might be ordered released. (See: PLN, March 2009, p. 40.) In response to that threat, the state “failed miserably” to do even what it promised the court. It neither implemented corrective plans in its 33 prisons in accordance with a court-approved “roll-out,” nor did it build so much as one new prison bed to ameliorate overcrowding among existing prisoners.

The three-judge court, convened pursuant to a rarely-invoked section of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(3)(B), was required to make specific findings under that law. First, it found that overcrowding was the number one cause of the constitutionally inadequate medical and healthcare treatment. Next, it found that no relief except a prisoner release order would bring CDCR into compliance. Finally, it determined that the population cap order was narrowly tailored to remedy the constitutional violations already found in Coleman and Plata, and the order would have little, if any, impact on public safety.

Relying upon testimony from an extremely broad field of experts, the court found the evidence overwhelmingly in favor of the prisoner plaintiffs. The court noted that fully 34,000 of CDCR’s adult prison occupants were seriously mentally ill. It observed that CDCR’s operating its prisons at 190% of design capacity far exceeded other states’ rates, a fact it tied to the excessive medical death and suicide rates. In short, the prisons were only designed to provide health care for about half the existing population, and that was about the rate being delivered. Even after an extensive hiring program, with court-ordered salary increases, CDCR still was short 27% of staffing its medical care and mental health care positions.

CDCR defended against the prisoner suit, claiming that crime would soar in the communities after all these “thugs” were released. But the court evaluated all such factors, and from the expert evidence, respectfully disagreed. First, as to California’s vaunted “recidivism” rate of 70 (within three years), that was primarily due to “technical” parole violations, e.g., being late to a meeting with the agent. Few other states invoke such violations, let alone return the parolee to state prison. (In fact, this “recidivism” rate is an artifact created by a pernicious program that identifies empty beds in the prisons, then “fills” them by sweeping up technically errant violators – finally sending them to CDCR reception centers the next day.)

Experts referred to CDCR’s violator treatment as “criminogenic.” This means that each time a parolee is taken away from his tenuous reintegration process, he thereby becomes more likely to later turn to crime to survive. Stated another way, parole violator “correctional” policies are perversely increasing criminality in the community.

To reverse this unaffordable trend, the court took suggestions from the experts. It recommended that most of the population reduction could come from simply slashing technical parole violations. Other progressive changes would include increasing the good-behavior credits, which could include educational and rehabilitational programming objectives. Additionally, some of the body count reduction could come from transferring prisoners to out-of-state facilities.

California was already at the cross-roads of a self-imposed prison overpopulation crisis. In its recently passed 2009-2010 budget, the Legislature agreed to cut CDCR’s $11 billion budget by $1.2 billion. But the details of those cuts were left wholly unspecified. There were suggestions about reducing parole violations and about deporting the tens of thousands of foreign nationals incarcerated for minor felonies. Now, with the added pressure of the federally ordered population cap, and its 45-day fuse on giving the court a workable two-year plan, CDCR will have to actually take steps to cut its highly unionized staff (over 30,000 guards plus innumerable non-peace-officer employees) to comply with both state budget constraints and federal health care restraints.

The state’s first response, however, was from Attorney General (and gubernatorial candidate) Jerry Brown, who announced that he would appeal the order directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. In other words, spend yet more money to avoid cutting costs or providing court-ordered health care. “We aren’t opening the floodgates and releasing prisoners,” CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate added. See: Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, No. CIV S-90-0520 LKK JFM P; Plata v. Schwarzenegger, No. C01-1351 TEH. Over the decades, the prisoners have been well and tenaciously represented by the Prison Law Office, headed by attorney Donald Specter and the San Francisco law firm of Rosen, Bien and Galvan.

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Related legal cases

Coleman v. Schwarzenegger

Plata v. Schwarzenegger