California has been given two more years to fix its long-running prison overcrowding problem.
After years of keeping the Brown administration's feet to the fire through court orders, a three-judge panel on Monday gave state officials a rare reprieve, extending the deadline to February 2016 to comply with caps on the state's inmate population. The federal judges agreed to Gov. Jerry Brown's recent request for more time to deal with a prison crisis that dates back decades.
At the same time, the judges set strict guidelines for how the state must comply with the court orders, including limits on the number of inmates that can be shipped to out-of-state prisons.
The Brown administration had asked the judges to lift a previous deadline of this April to shed at least 7,000 more inmates to relieve prison overcrowding, arguing that some reforms require the extra two years to provide a permanent solution. The state has already reduced its prison population by about 30,000 inmates over the past few years as a result of court orders, but the judges have insisted more must be done to comply with their findings that overcrowding has resulted in inadequate medical and mental health care in the 34 state prisons.
In a statement, Brown called the order "encouraging."
"The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer," the governor said.
Lawyers for the inmates, however, still oppose the extension, saying overcrowding continues to plague the prison system, resulting in inferior medical and mental health care for the inmates.
"Two years delay is two more years of the same problems," said Michael Bien, a lawyer for the inmates.
In Monday's order, the judges instructed the state to immediately carry out a series of measures to either release or move inmates from state prisons. These include: increase credits for nonviolent second-strike offenders and minimum custody inmates; set earlier parole eligibility for some nonviolent offenders; ease parole for inmates who are older than 60 and have already served at least 25 years in prison; and expand alternative custody programs for female inmates.
The judges also backed a state proposal to appoint a compliance officer to ensure California is on track to comply with the inmate population cap.
As part of the order, the court barred prison officials from exceeding the current 8,900 inmates in out-of-state prisons, limiting a tactic the Brown administration has used to lessen overcrowding in California's prisons.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz