SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Federal judges on Monday gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap, the latest step in a long-running lawsuit aimed at improving inmate medical care.
In doing so, the judges said they would appoint a compliance officer who will release inmates early if the state fails to meet interim benchmarks or the final goal.
The order from the three-judge panel delayed an April deadline to reduce the prison population to about 112,000 inmates. California remains more than 5,000 inmates over a limit set by the courts, even though the state has built more prison space and used some private cells.
"It is even more important now for defendants to take effective action that will provide a long-term solution to prison overcrowding, as, without further action, the prison population is projected to continue to increase and health conditions are likely to continue to worsen," the judges said in a five-page opinion scolding the state for more than four years of delay.
California has reduced its prison population by about 25,000 inmates during the past two years, primarily through a law that sends lower-level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons. It also has spent billions of dollars on new medical facilities and staff, including opening an $839 million prison medical facility in Stockton last fall.
Yet in its latest ruling, the special panel of judges tasked with considering the legal battle involving overcrowding said the state has continually failed to implement any of the other measures approved by the panel and the Supreme Court that would have safely reduced the prison population and alleviated unconstitutional conditions involving medical and mental health care.
The judges said the delays have cost taxpayers money while causing inmates to needlessly suffer.
However, immediately enforcing the population cap would simply prompt the state to move thousands more inmates to private prisons in other states without solving the long-term crowding problem, the judges said.
Given that choice, they adopted a proposal outlined by Gov. Jerry Brown's administration that it can reach the population cap by the end of February 2016 through steps that include expanding a Stockton medical facility to house about 1,100 mentally ill inmates and freeing more than 2,000 inmates who are elderly, medically incapacitated, or who become eligible for parole because of accelerated good-time credits.
The judges said the state also has agreed to consider more population-reduction reforms in the next two years, including the possible establishment of a commission to recommend reforms of penal and sentencing laws.
Brown said the ruling was encouraging.
"The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer," he said in a statement.
Brown's administration said the alternative would have been to spend up to $20 million during the fiscal year that ends June 30 and up to $50 million next fiscal year to lease enough additional cells to meet the court order.
With the delay, Brown said the state can spend $81 million next fiscal year for rehabilitation programs that would otherwise be spent to house inmates.
Inmates' attorneys had wanted the judges to require the state to meet the population cap by May.
"We're very disappointed," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that represented inmates in the crowding lawsuit. "We believe that there are substantial constitutional violations continuing right now, which result in prisoners suffering and dying because of prison overcrowding."
The inmates' attorneys could consider appealing the latest order, he said.
Specter and Michael Bien, a lawyer representing mentally ill inmates, said they are pleased the judges will appoint a compliance officer to police the population reduction targets. If the state fails to meet the interim or final caps, the officer will release inmates based on their risk to public safety and other factors.
"There's not going to be any more excuses or delays if in fact the state does not meet one of these new benchmarks," Bien said.
Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen, who once headed the state parole board, called the court order "tragic" and said it would endanger public safety.
He blamed Brown, a Democrat expected to seek re-election this year, and the court for what he called a "disastrous new system that will result in the early release of many serious and violent inmates."
The state should instead increase capacity in prisons and jails while investing in rehabilitation and early intervention programs, Nielsen said in a statement.
The rulings on prison crowding stem from a pair of lawsuits in which federal judges ruled that the state was providing substandard treatment to mentally and physically ill inmates.
The lower court's authority was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, and in October the high court declined to consider a new appeal by the governor.
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