California gets 2 more years to cut prison numbers

Inmates at Chino State Prison walk past their bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners  in Chino, California

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Inmates at Chino State Prison walk past their bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners in Chino, Calif. A three-judge panel on Monday gave the state two more years to reduce the prison population to a court-ordered cap.

Federal judges on Monday gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap, the latest step in a long-running lawsuit aimed at improving inmate medical care.

But in doing so, the judges said they would appoint a compliance officer who will release inmates early if the state fails to meet interim benchmarks or the final goal.

The order from the three-judge panel delayed an April deadline to reduce the prison population to about 112,164 inmates. California remains more than 5,000 inmates over a limit set by the courts, even though the state has built more prison space and used some private cells.

Gov. Jerry Brown's administration told the judges it can reach that level by the end of February 2016, with steps that include expanding a Stockton medical facility to house about 1,100 mentally ill inmates.

In addition, the administration says nearly 1,600 more inmates would be freed if they met one of several criteria, including: being medically incapacitated; being 60 or older and having served at least 25 years in prison; or being a nonviolent offender who is eligible because of an acceleration in awarding good-time credits.

The state said it also could release about 350 nonviolent second-strikers by making them eligible for parole after they served half their sentences/

The judges adopted the administration's proposals, finding that giving the state a conditional two additional years to meet the population cap is narrowly tailored to the constitutional violations, extends no further than necessary to remedy those violations, and is the least intrusive possible remedy.

The judges said the state is expected to include "the development of additional measures regarding reforms to state penal and sentencing laws designed to reduce the prison population."

On Monday, the governor issued a statement on the extension: 

“It is encouraging that the Three-Judge Court has agreed to a two-year extension. The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer.”

This story has been updated.

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