California Governor Jerry Brown has come up with another plan to delay a reduction in prison overcrowding. Rather than to fully comply with a panel of three federal judges who ordered California to reduce its prison population more than four years ago, the Governor is prepared to go back to the justices yet again to ask for more time.
On Sept. 9, Gov. Brown and state Legislative leaders put together a new scheme to seek more time from federal judges to reduce the prison population. They plan to request an additional extension in order to comply with an August 2009 federal order, which was upheld in May 2011 by the United States Supreme Court.
The Governor has vowed to comply with the federal order, if necessary, without resorting to the early release of prisoners. If the federal judges deny the request for an extension, Republican and Democratic Legislative leaders are prepared to spend over $315 million of California’s $1.1 billion reserve this year alone to fund relocation of California prisoners to private and out-of-state prisons, county jails and other facilities. That figure is expected to increase to $415 annually in coming years.
California State Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) initially had called Gov. Brown’s plan “inadequate,” insisting on more programs to address drug abuse and mental illness. Sen. Steinberg had proposed asking attorney’s for inmates and the judges for a three-year extension. The panel of federal judges has already extended the deadline from June 30 to December 31.
Sen. Steinberg’s recommendations have been incorporated into the new plan, overwhelmingly approved by the state Assembly by a vote of 75-0. Sen. Steinberg’s goal is to reduce the rate offense by ex-cons by investing in rehabilitative programs. That is the reason for going back to the panel of federal judges to request an additional three years to reduce California’s prison population.
Lawsuits Challenging the Problems with California’s Prison Overcrowding
California has been battling prison overcrowding in the courts for over 23 years. Since 1990, two federal civil rights lawsuits brought by prisoner lawyers have been the driving force behind the changes continuously being resisted by the Governor and the state Legislature.
Coleman v. Brown
Coleman v. Brown is a federal lawsuit under the Civil Rights Act of 1873, 8th and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The class action suit alleges that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) provides inadequate mental health care to inmates, resulting in unconstitutional violations of prisoner’s rights.
The case was filed on April 23, 1990 by the Prison Law Office. In June 1994, a U.S. magistrate judge heard the matter, finding that CDCR’s delivery of mental health care to class members violated the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
On September 13, 1995 the court issued a permanent injunction in the Coleman case. A special master was appointed to verify that the CDCR was in compliance with court ordered injunctive relief. The special master submitted multiple reports “reflect[ing] a troubling reversal in the progress of the remedial efforts of the preceding decade.”
Plata v. Brown
Plata v. Brown is a federal lawsuit alleging that CDCR medical services are inadequate and violate the U.S. Eighth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The case was filed on April 5, 2001 and amended in August 2001. The alleged violations include:
- Inadequate medical screening of incoming prisoners;
- Delays in or failure to provide access to medical care;
- Untimely responses to medical emergencies;
- The interference of custodial staff with the provision of medical care;
- The failure to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of competent medical staff;
- Disorganized and incomplete medical records; and
- A lack of quality control procedures.
The claims alleged that patients being treated by the CDCR received inadequate medical care that resulted in the deaths of 34 inmate patients. California has the highest rate of prisoner suicide in the United States, a fact relied upon by the U.S. Supreme Court in their 2011 decision to require California to reduce its prison population.
The Three-Judge Federal Court Panel
In 2006, attorneys for prisoners in the Coleman and Plata cases filed motions to convene a three-judge court to cap the prison population. On July 23, 2007 both the Plata and Coleman courts granted these motions and recommended that the cases be assigned to the same three-judge federal court.
August 2009 Reduction Order
On August 4, 2009, the three-judge court ordered California officials to submit a plan within 45 days outlining “a population reduction plan that will in no more than two years reduce the population of the CDCR’s adult institutions to 137.5 percent of their combined design capacity.”
California had to cut 40,000 inmates out of its prison population of 150,000 when the verdict was issued. Since then, California has slowly reduced its prison population by changing its laws defining certain non-serious, non-violent felony crimes as offenses punishable by a county jail sentence rather than prison time. This is known as the Realignment Act, which took effect on October 1, 2011. State officials have also increased the number of California prisoners being sent to private, out-of-state facilities at a substantial cost to taxpayers.
Neither the three-judge panel nor the United States Supreme Court mandated that California release inmates from actual custody. California responded by shifting certain state prisoners to county jails and privately run prisons. The federal judges recommended reducing the incarceration of nonviolent offenders and technical parole violators in order to reach the maximum capacity.
What’s Next for California?
State officials have yet to fully comply with the federal court order as the Governor seeks to yet again extend the deadline to reduce the prison overcrowding problem. This time, however, the Legislature is taking serious action to put a greater emphasis on rehabilitative efforts aimed at reducing prisoner recidivism. By beginning to invest in strategies aimed at the long term goal of assisting inmates with drug addiction and mental health issues once released from custody, the Legislature is finally making an effort that is long overdue: getting people out of prison and providing services to help former inmates to stay out.
One can only speculate as to the enormous amount of influence the California Correctional and Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) – California’s unionized prison guards – have had in the decisions being made at the state capitol level to prolong the problem of prison overcrowding. The guards’ union contributes significantly to California political campaigns and is a top supporter of Gov. Brown.
It’s up to the federal panel of judges as to whether or not to extend the December 31st deadline to reduce California’s prison population by about 8,500. A decision is expected by the end of September.