Prison overcrowding: A federal case?

Prison overcrowding: A federal case?
By Howard Mintz hmintz@mercurynews.com
Posted: 08/05/2009 08:22:52 PM PDT
Updated: 08/06/2009 01:27:09 PM PDT

A federal court’s sweeping order this week forcing California to cut its prison population by 40,000 inmates may have been as predictable as it was dramatic, a judicial thunderbolt state officials should have seen coming for nearly two decades.

While putting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration on the clock to come up with a plan to cure prison overcrowding within 45 days, the decision by a unique three-judge panel was the product of 27 years of legal fights over California’s ever-swelling prison system. It also follows more than a dozen previous orders warning the state that prison conditions had reached a bleak level of unconstitutional conditions.

As a result of the prison system’s checkered history responding to court orders, state officials may have a tough time defending themselves if, as expected, the state follows through with plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. An appeal to the high court would set up an unprecedented test of the power of the federal courts to issue such a sweeping mandate under a 1995 law designed to curb the federal judiciary’s oversight of state prisons.

In the 184-page ruling, the three judges went to great lengths to emphasize how much time California has had to solve its prison mess, and why that warrants an order that would cut the inmate population from about 150,000 to 110,000 in two years.

The judges wrote, “Unfortunately, where the political process has utterly failed to protect the constitutional rights of a minority, the courts can, and must, vindicate those rights.”

In separate interviews Wednesday, Matthew Cate, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and state Attorney General Jerry Brown appeared to back an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Prompted by the state’s staggering budget deficits, including a $1.2 billion hole in the corrections budget, the governor and corrections officials already have a proposal on the table that could cut the inmate population by about 37,000 inmates in the next several years, a number not far from the court’s target. But Cate and Brown said that in addition to other differences with the court’s order, they dread allowing federal judges to dictate how the prison system is run.

“Federal courts coming in and putting a cap on the inmate population is just too strong of a solution to the problem,” Cate said.

Prisoner rights lawyers, as well as legal experts, say even the conservative Supreme Court may be skeptical of the state’s position, given the lengthy legal battle over California’s prisons. Tuesday’s ruling stemmed from two separate lawsuits, one a 1990 challenge to mental health conditions in state prisons and the other a 2001 suit over inmate medical care.

“These judges have been extremely careful to give the state more than enough opportunity to demonstrate it had the ability on its own to bring its medical and mental health system into compliance with the constitution,” said Kara Dansky, executive director of Stanford law school’s criminal justice center.

Lawyers for inmates say the state has essentially been on notice since 1995, when a federal judge found after a trial that the state’s mental health care was constitutionally inadequate, just as a host of new tough-on-crime measures were pushing the prison population well over 100,000. Corrections officials have been scrambling to comply with court orders ever since.

prison conditions timeline
April 1990: Lawsuit filed in Sacramento federal court over inmate mental health care.
September 1995: Federal judge finds that state’s mental health care in prisons amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
April 2001: Class action lawsuit filed over prison health care, largest prisoner rights lawsuit in history.
January 2002: State reaches settlement that requires widespread improvements in inmate health care.
October 2005: Federal judge overseeing health care case finds system “broken beyond repair,” and appoints receiver to monitor prison system.
October 2006: California hits record prison population of more than 160,000 inmates, double capacity. Special three-judge court appointed to oversee the two prison condition cases.
August 2009: Panel of federal judges orders state to devise plan to reduce prison population by 40,000 inmates, finding overcrowded prisons violate constitution.

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