Court rejects Calif. plea to delay inmate releases

An aerial shot of High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California.
An aerial shot of High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Federal judges on Wednesday rejected California’s request for more time to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. In their 42-page ruling, the judges cited a long history by state officials’ of dodging orders and delaying improvements to inmates' healthcare.

In June, the 3-judge panel ordered California to release or find more housing for 9600 inmates by the end of the year. Gov. Brown asked them to stay their order so he can appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the judges said they “cannot in good conscience grant a stay” given California’s “long history” of “noncompliance."

Four years ago, the judges found that California’s prisons were so crowded and its healthcare system so taxed that inmates were dying from a lack of treatment. They ordered California to reduce the congestion — an order the state fought and lost at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since then, California has shed 25,000 inmates from the system, but it’s not enough to satisfy the court.

In January, the governor said the prisons provide excellent healthcare to inmates and refused to do more.

Brown has one last card to play:  His administration has said it would seek a stay from Justice Anthony Kennedy if the delay was denied. Kennedy oversees appeals from western states.

If Kennedy declines to intervene, the state has said it will begin freeing inmates to comply with the lower court order.

Brown has argued that the state already has reduced what once was the nation's largest state prison population by more than 46,000 inmates since 2006, with more than half the decrease due to a 2-year-old state law that is sentencing lower-level criminals to county jails instead of state prisons.

Releasing the final 10,000 inmates now will overwhelm law enforcement and cause irreparable harm to public safety because inmates, once released, cannot be returned to prison if the nation's high court eventually rules in the state's favor, the administration argues.

Attorneys representing inmates countered in their own court filing that the state has had two years to comply, using measures that already have been approved by the courts.

Further delay now "will prolong ongoing irreparable harm — including illness and death" for inmates, they argue.

This story has been updated.