California has met the first of the requirements set by the federal courts to reduce its inmate population as a way to improve health care in the nation's largest state prison system, prison officials said Tuesday.
Federal judges ordered the state to reduce the population by about 10,000 inmates by the end of 2011 as a means to improve the care of mentally and physically ill inmates. The population in the 33 adult prisons fell to 132,887 as of last week's court-imposed deadline.
"Based on that number, we have met the benchmark," said Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "It's gratifying to see that we have in fact made it."
The population is now two-tenths of a percentage point under the goal required by the courts. It means the state is on track to reduce the state's inmate population by 33,000, or 23 percent, over two years.
The state plans to file its formal legal declaration with the federal courts later this week, Callison said.
The population reduction is designed to improve inmates' mental health and medical care so judges can end court challenges that have driven most prison operations for years. The lawsuits led to the appointment of a federal receiver to oversee inmate medical care and prompted the state to spend billions of dollars to build new facilities and raise salaries for medical and mental health workers.
The lower court's population reduction order was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in May.
Besides the inmates in its 33 adult prisons, California also houses about 9,300 inmates in private prisons in other states and about 5,300 inmates in fire camps and private prisons in California.
The state is reducing its population mainly through a new law transferring responsibility for lower level criminals from state prisons to county jails.