Cancel prison overcrowding order, Brown tells federal judges

10:22 PM, Jan 7, 2013   |    comments
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A new legal push by Gov. Jerry Brown argues that California has improved medical care for its inmates enough to warrant the cancellation of an order by federal judges to reduce the prison population even further.

"The overcrowding and health care conditions cited by this court to support its population reduction order are now a distant memory," says the motion filed by state attorneys Monday night, just hours before a court imposed deadline for an update on prison conditions.

Brown himself is expected to make the case for leniency under the long running court fight over prison population at a pair of news conferences in Sacramento and Los Angeles on Tuesday.

The state is under an order by a panel of three federal judges to reduce its prison population to no more than 137.5 percent of the prisons' bed capacity -- roughly a population of about 115,000 inmates.  State documents show that as of January 2, the total population in state penal institutions and camps was 122,940. That's an almost 10 percent smaller prison population from the same week in 2012, but not yet at the level mandated by the three judge panel and -- in general -- upheld in a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.

The new pleading (read it here) says the court's original goal -- constitutionally acceptable prison health care -- has been met, even though the prison population remains above the mandated cap.

"Given the superior health care system that now exists," says the state's court filing, "continued enforcement of the population reduction order would be inequitable, violate principles of federalism, and jeopardize public safety."

Prison medical care has largely been handled for the last six years by a federal court appointed receivership, which has had virtual carte blance to spend what it deems necessary to alleviate the problems identified in the original lawsuits, filed by inmates more than a decade ago.

The Brown administration's argument in the new filing is twofold: the receivership has worked, and so has the 2011 realignment plan that now sends more low level offenders to county jails, not state prisions.

"There is simply no need for any further reductions," says the governor's filing.

Whether the three judge panel agrees with the state's position remains to be seen.  What may make this case more interesting is the governor's newly appointed secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Dr. Jeffrey Beard. Beard, who previously led the prisons department in Pennsylvania, also happened to serve as an expert witness for the inmate plaintiffs in the very case in question.

Beard and other experts, says the new court filing, "have all concluded that the current prison population does not interfere with the state's provision of quality health care."

Brown's frustration with the federal court intervention was well known during his time as attorney general.  And beyond the crime and punishment aspect, getting some breathing room from the court order to keep cutting prisons would also save the state money -- something no doubt that will be talked about later in the week, when the governor unveils his 2013-2014 state budget.


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