Despite Gov. Jerry Brown's insistence that California's prison overcrowding "emergency is over," a special federal court panel on Thursday rejected the state's bid to end judicial oversight of the prison system and threatened to trigger contempt proceedings if the administration does not meet a December deadline to shed more inmates.
A three-judge panel refused to dissolve an August 2009 order that the state reduce the inmate population to about 110,000 at its 33 prisons, the result of concerns that prisons are so overstuffed they have inadequate medical and mental health care. The judges gave the state three weeks to explain how it plans to meet the court-ordered goals by later this year.
"California still houses far more prisoners than its system is designed to house," the court said in a 71-page ruling, which chastised the governor for defying the orders to fix a problem that dates back decades.
The governor in January moved to end court oversight of the state prison system, arguing that the release of more than 30,000 inmates over the past few years has solved the overcrowding problem and ensured prisons have adequate medical and mental health care. The court in 2009 found the prisons so overcrowded -- exceeding 160,000 inmates at times -- that they violated prisoners' constitutional rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a divided decision, upheld the court orders in 2010. But Brown has vowed to go back to the Supreme Court, arguing that the state should no longer be under the control of the judges.
Brown, traveling in China, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Deborah Hoffman, assistant secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, expressed concern about the court's order and vowed to appeal.
"California has invested more than a billion dollars to transform its prison health care system," she said in a statement. "Further forced reductions to the prison population would unnecessarily jeopardize public safety."
The court originally ordered the state to reduce the inmate population to 137 percent of capacity, which by this spring would result in about 110,000 inmates left in California prisons. Brown's December 2011 prison realignment plan, which shifted many low-level offenders to county jails, has slashed the inmate population by at least 26,000, but the state appears to be having trouble going further.
In Thursday's orders, the judges expressed concern that the state's realignment plan has reached its potential and that other measures must be taken to further reduce the inmate population. The order also noted the state's plans to return about 9,000 inmates to California prisons from out-of-state prisons, which could aggravate the overcrowding.
The judges observed prison officials have not "achieved a durable remedy," turning away the argument that the reduction so far has solved the problem. And the order also noted that the court already has given the state an extra six months, to December, to meet the original inmate goals.
As a result, the judges called Brown's approach "contumacious," and warned he could face contempt proceedings if the state refuses to comply with court orders. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger faced a similar threat earlier in the case.
Lawyers for the inmates argue that problems persist in the prison mental health and medical care system because of overcrowding. And they opposed the governor's attempt to end court oversight of the prisons.
"It's a crushing blow to the governor's efforts to get out from under the population cap," said Donald Specter, lead attorney for the Prison Law Office. "He's burned whatever bridge there is."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.