Crime & Justice

Judges extend deadline in California prison overcrowding

File photo: Inmates exercise at Chino State Prison in 2010.
File photo: Inmates exercise at Chino State Prison in 2010.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Federal judges agreed Tuesday to extend an end-of-year deadline for reducing California's prison population in hopes of finding a long-term solution to an overcrowding crisis that has forced the state to spend billions of dollars to improve inmate medical care.

The ruling granted at least a temporary victory to Gov. Jerry Brown and leading lawmakers of both parties. They had been fighting against an early release of inmates, saying it jeopardized public safety.

The panel of three federal judges granted the delay until Jan. 27 but said all parties must meet with a separate judge, who will make recommendations to the panel by Oct. 21.

The order was the latest development in a seven-year court case centered on inmate medical care. The judges said the one-month delay and mediation process are intended to "ensure a durable solution" to the legal battle that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s a very important step, because now there is an opportunity for the parties to help advise the court, hopefully together, on how to craft a longer-term extension,” state Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told KPCC. "The bottom line [is] that we now have an opportunity, if the court gives us time, to achieve a lasting and durable solution to this prison overcrowding crisis."

In June, the judges had ordered the state to reduce its prison population by an additional 9,600 inmates by year's end.

One of the lead attorneys representing inmates in the case said he was hopeful the process would lead to a lasting reduction and better health care for the state's inmate population.

"We've been litigating this since November 2006, so a one-month delay is not really significant in that context," said Don Specter, director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office. "One month to figure out if we can get a sustainable solution to this whole program is well worth it, in my opinion."

The three federal judges are asking the parties to examine the status of Three Strikes inmates, elderly and infirm prisoners, those being held on immigration violations, juveniles and those considered low-risk. The judges have said previously they believe the state can release some of those prisoners before their full sentences have been served without endangering public safety.

But Steinberg says that the solution is addressing repeat offenders and that 65 percent of people who leave state or county jails generally end back up in jail. 

“If we don’t deal with what makes people come back once they leave — drug abuse, mental health issues — then we might stop the overcrowding at one point in time, but it will come right back again” Steinberg told KPCC.

The judges said they do not want the mediator to consider transferring inmates to private prisons out-of-state, as the governor had previously proposed. Transfers to private prisons within California or available county jail cells can be among the solutions, according to the order.

This story has been updated.