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California May Have Tough Battle Ahead if it Appeals Order to Reduce Prison Population

A federal court's sweeping order (in early August 2009) 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. "Unfortunately," the judges wrote, "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 Attorney General Jerry Brown appeared to back an appeal to the Supreme Court. "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.

This week's ruling, noting that by 2005 an inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days, suggested the state had a variety of options that would not threaten public safety, including: using good time credits for early release of inmates; diverting inmates who violate parole out of the prison; shifting low risk offenders serving short sentences to other programs; and adopting sentencing reforms.

Republican lawmakers and others have criticized the ruling, saying it would jeopardize public safety. Cate and Brown are miffed the court did not consider what they say are improvements in the last several years in prison medical and mental health services, a point they plan to make to the Supreme Court.

"It is hard to say how spending more on prisoner health care than anywhere in the world is cruel and unusual," Brown said. "That's why that appeal is probably necessary." Legal experts, however, say the Supreme Court is likely to be less focused on the factual findings of the judges and more on whether they exceeded their authority under the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act, which limited prison-related lawsuits but included exceptions when overcrowding creates intolerable problems.

"If there ever was a case that fits under this law, this is it," said Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office and a lead lawyer for the inmates.

Source: edited for length from San Jose Mercury News (CA), August 6, 2009, by Howard Mintz. Full ruling referenced at

California Wants to Jail MORE Drug Offenders

What are these people smoking?

California faces near bankruptcy this year. Federal judges have ordered the state to reduce its prison population by any means. The vastly overcrowded state prison at Chino exploded in violence in early August due in no small part to serious overcrowding.

So of course, the Schwarzenegger administration is set to vote on increased funding to police anti-drug units, potentially putting even more non-violent offenders behind bars.

The California Emergency Management is deciding whether to channel $33 million in federal money to narcotics task forces around the state that have proved "particularly adept at apprehending drug criminals". Money also would go to marijuana-suppression efforts.

Critics say that money should instead be directed to drug-treatment programs whose funding has been sliced amid California's budget woes. The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that the increase could yield 13,000 arrests during the coming year, resulting in prison time for nearly a quarter of those apprehended, at a cost of $160 million. Funding for drug treatment programs was slashed roughly in half from $120 million two years ago, and faces more dramatic cuts in the coming year.

Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)

California Citizens Offer Their Own Budget Solution

In mid-August, two days before the state Legislature convened to address prison reform, a coalition of the ACLU of Northern California, Books Not Bars, the Drug Policy Alliance and Families to Amend California's Three Strikes proposed a "people's budget fix" at the state Capitol. State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), and Assemblypersons Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) and Jim Beall Jr. (D-San Jose) spoke to about 100 people in favor of reducing state prison overcrowding and spending, and improving public safety.

"What we hope to do is get key legislative support for an alternative, modified version of the governor's prison proposal," said Zachary Norris, director of the Books Not Bars program. Before entering the Capitol, Natasha Minkler, death penalty policy director for the ACLUNC, and Annette Summers of FACTS spoke with coalition members in part on the research-based weaknesses of the state's current penal system. The coalition spent the afternoon meeting with 20 Democratic lawmakers and their staff members.

The "people's budget fix" coalition's proposals to save $1.2 billion in prison spending range from converting dozens of nonviolent offenses to misdemeanors, handling petty drug offenses at the local level, maintaining recidivism-reduction programs, replacing the death penalty with life without parole and reforming the "three strikes" law.

Source: Truthout (US)

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