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Federal Court Grants Six-Month Extension to Reduce CDCR Prison Population

The three-judge federal court over a long-standing prison healthcare class-action suit against California took a slight turn on January 29, 2013, when the court gave the state a six-month extension to achieve the prison population reduction it had ordered previously.

The court had required the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to reduce its population to 137.5% of design capacity by June 27, 2013, so that overcrowding would no longer render prison medical and mental health care unconstitutionally deficient. In raw numbers, this means a population cap of 110,000 prisoners (down from 172,000 at the peak of overcrowding just two years ago). The population of California’s prison system is currently about 120,000 – so the remaining battle is over further cuts of 10,000.

The saga of unconstitutional healthcare in California state prisons has been ongoing for over two decades in the federal courts. The Coleman case on mental health treatment, and the Plata case on medical care, have been merged under a three-judge panel convened pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. PLN has reported regularly on developments in this litigation – including the district court’s initial finding that California prison healthcare was so bad that it required the appointment of a federal receiver. [See: PLN, March 2006, p.1].

Even with the receiver, preventable prisoner suicides and deaths due to inadequate medical care remained all too frequent. [See: PLN, Sept. 2008, p.18; March 2007, p.39]. As a result, a three-judge court was convened. [See: PLN, March 2008, p.38]. The court eventually recognized that the principal driver of the healthcare problems was overcrowding, and ordered California to reduce its prison population or increase capacity. [See: PLN, March 2009, p.40].

Six months later, the three-judge court set a timetable for the population reduction. [See: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.36]. The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Prison Law Office director Donald Specter, wrote the cover story for the September 2010 issue of PLN, explaining how overcrowding was indeed the main culprit behind deficient medical and mental health care within the CDCR. The state appealed the three-judge court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the prison population reduction order. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].

With the unconstitutionality issue decided, the state was left with the problem of how to implement the reduction. One major driver of prison population growth was the prison guards’ union – the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) – which, through its parole agents, made sure that sufficient parole violations kept prison beds full.

In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law “realignment” statutes that were designed, in part, to stem the flow of technical parole violators into state prisons. Realignment also moved low-level offenders with less than three years to serve from CDCR facilities into county jails. All prisoners released from jail confinement were no longer placed on parole but rather on county probation. This resulted in an 80% reduction in the number of state parole agents, who were left with only “high risk” offenders to monitor.

Finally, in November 2012, voters passed Proposition 36, repealing part of California’s three-strikes law, which had resulted in approximately 4,000 prisoners sentenced to life terms when their “third strike” was only a minor non-violent, non-sex-related offense.
This change is expected to allow approximately 3,000 eligible lifers to apply for sentence recall and resentencing.

Presently, California has succeeded in eliminating technical parole violators from its prisons, has transferred numerous low-level offenders to county jails and has commenced the three-strike sentence recall petition process. The state still has over 9,000 prisoners held in privately-operated out-of-state facilities and planned to return them to California by 2016. [See: PLN, July 2012, p.28]. However, bringing those prisoners home is not consistent with reducing the in-state prison population by 10,000, as required by the three-judge court.

Accordingly, the state will have to become more creative. Either it will convince the court that medical and mental health care in the CDCR are no longer unconstitutional at a population level of 120,000 prisoners, or it will have to decide which prisoners to either release early or send out of state. One suggestion is to turn over the sizeable number of foreign nationals in California’s state prisons to ICE for deportation. Another suggestion, in recognition of the 1% recidivism rate of prisoners serving life sentences for murder and kidnapping, is to let the parole board do its statutory job of “normally” fixing the parole date of all such prisoners at their initial parole hearing. The board’s current record, which has improved several-fold in just the last three years, only fixes parole dates for about 10% of such eligible lifers.

On January 7, 2013, the state filed a motion with the three-judge court seeking to vacate or modify the court’s order requiring the CDCR to reduce its population to 137.5% of design capacity by June 2013. California officials argued that there was no longer “ongoing systemwide constitutional violations in medical and mental health care” within the CDCR, and separately filed a motion to terminate prospective relief in the Coleman case but not the Plata case.

The state further advised the court that it was “unable to meet the 137.5% prisoner population cap by June 2013 but that they will be able to do so essentially by December 31, 2013.” The three-judge court therefore modified its prior order, and on January 29, 2013 granted the defendants a six-month extension – until the end of 2013 – to fully comply with the CDCR population reduction.

With respect to mental health care, an expert in the Coleman case, Matthew Lopes, filed a 609-page report on January 18, 2013 that found prisoners were not receiving adequate treatment for their mental conditions and continued to commit suicide. “At this time, any attempt at a more abrupt conclusion to court oversight would be, in the opinion of the special master, not only premature but a needless distraction from the important work that is being done in the quality improvement project,” Lopes wrote, noting there were 32 suicides in CDCR facilities in 2012. See: Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. CIV S-90-0520 LKK JFM P.

“These problems are serious, they’re well known to the defendants, the solution is well known, what they need to do is well known, and they’ve failed to do it,” said Michael Bien with the law firm of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, which represents the prisoner plaintiffs. “That is a constitutional violation.... Years and years later, the problems exist and people are dying unnecessarily.”

The three-judge court has not ruled on the state’s motion to terminate relief in Coleman, and postponed its decision until additional information is submitted by the defendants and a response is filed by the plaintiffs. PLN will report future developments in this case. See: Plata v. Brown, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. C01-1351 TEH.

Additional source: Sacramento Bee

Related legal cases

Coleman v. Schwarzenegger

Plata v. Brown


 

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