Judges add another extra month to state prison deadline

4:40 PM, Oct 21, 2013   |    comments
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The mediation process over California's prison population saga instituted by a panel of federal judges has been flying under the radar for the past month, but it must be making some progress.

The judges, based on reports they've received on that process, decided on Monday to give Gov. Jerry Brown another additional month to comply with their order to shrink the prison population.

That deadline, originally set for Dec. 31 and then moved into January, now sits at Feb. 24.

This second extension of the deadline was welcome news for the Brown administration, which has signed contracts for beds in private lockups to accommodate slightly less than half of the 8,500 inmates it needs to move out of the state's 34 prisons.

But if those private talks are easing the long frustrations of the plaintiffs -- the inmates whose original lawsuits over medical and mental health care date back more than a decade -- it wasn't evident at Monday's first hearing of a new Assembly panel.

"You can either increase the capacity of the state prison system by renting out prisons," inmates' attorney Don Specter told the legislators, "or you can try to find other, more less expensive and more effective ways."

Specter accused state officials of focusing on "a litigation strategy" through the years when it came to the size of the prison population.  Those legal fights likely ended earlier this month, with the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to reconsider the state's pleading.

Democrats on the newly created Assembly committee made it clear they want time to consider a more comprehensive change to the criminal justice system.

"The system, as it is now, is pretty much bankrupt," said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-San Bernardino.

Assembly Republicans, who urged the new panel to examine a number of reasons leading up to the overcrowding fight, focused in on Monday on one specific issue: the slow pace of new prison construction in the years since a $7 billion bond authorization in 2007.

"Wouldn't that alleviate the position we're in now?" asked Assemblyman Jeff Gorrell, R-Camarillo, in a Q&A with plaintiffs' attorney Don Specter.

"If they had built 40,000 prison beds?" replied Specter.  "Of course.  But they didn't."

The decision for the new late February deadline is, of course, much less than what the governor and a majority of legislators want. Legislation signed into law last month assumes a three year extension for a much broader change in prison policy.

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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