Federal judges deny motion to vacate California's prison population cap

A trio of federal judges ruled Thursday that California must continue to reduce its prison population.
A trio of federal judges ruled Thursday that California must continue to reduce its prison population.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A three-judge panel has rejected Governor Jerry Brown's motion to vacate a prison population cap ordered seven years ago.

In their Thursday ruling, the federal judges wrote that overcrowding has "plagued" the state prison system for decades, and is the main reason inmates have suffered and died from a lack of mental and medical care.

Michael Bien, an attorney who represents prisoners in ongoing lawsuits said, “The judges have put it in the strongest terms possible that the State of California must act now to reduce the prison population to court-ordered levels to address the ongoing inhumane and unconstitutional conditions in the state’s prisons.”

Seven years ago, California’s prisons were packed with nearly twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold. A panel of federal judges ordered the state to reduce the number of inmates by 40,000.  They left it up to state officials to decide how.

The Schwarzenegger administration appealed the decision, but it was upheld in 2011 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Since then, California has reduced the number of inmates in state prisons by more than 20,000 — but not enough to comply with the court's order.

In January, Governor Brown declared the prison overcrowding crisis “over” and asked the court to vacate the population cap. 

In denying the request, the court gave the state 21 days to present a detailed plan to complete the prisoner reductions by the end of the year, including a way to identify "low-risk" prisoners to be released early.

If the state does not comply with the order, the judges said they would hold officials in contempt: "We make this observation reluctantly, but with determination that defendants will not be allowed to continue to violate the requirements of the Constitution of the United States.”

In a statement, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said the state will appeal the court order: “Our prisons now provide timely and effective health care to inmates that far exceeds what the Constitution requires. Further forced reductions to the prison population would unnecessarily jeopardize public safety.”