High court refuses to delay Calif. prison releases

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The U.S. Supreme Court building. (AP Photo)

The U.S. Supreme Court building. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Friday refused to delay a court order for California to release nearly 10,000 inmates by year’s end to improve conditions in state prisons.

The court rejected a plea from Gov. Jerry Brown, over the objections of three justices. Brown argued the early release would jeopardize public safety.

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said they would have granted the state’s request.

The court ruled 5-4 in 2011 that the state must cut its inmate population to deal with unconstitutional prison conditions caused by overcrowding.

State officials said conditions have improved dramatically since a lower court order in 2009. The order calls for the population to be cut to about 110,000 inmates.

Scalia, joined by Thomas, said the state’s evidence shows that it has made “meaningful progress” and that such reductions in the inmate population are no longer necessary.

The Brown administration argued in its July 22 filing with the Supreme Court that most of the less dangerous inmates already are being diverted to county jails or have been released from state prison,

The state says it has fewer than 1,800 inmates defined as low-risk, who have not committed felonies while in prison or do not have gang affiliations.

Releasing the additional 10,000 inmates, it says, will involve violent criminals and overwhelm the abilities of local law enforcement and social services.

“No data suggests that a sudden release of inmates with these characteristics can be done safely,” the state says in its filing. “No expert has recommended doing it. No state has ever done it.”

A special three-judge federal panel and attorneys representing inmates have consistently rejected that argument. Other states have marginally reduced inmates’ sentences without sparking an increase in crime, they say.

They have said that further delay in reducing prison overcrowding will further the substandard delivery of medical and mental health care and, by extension, lead to more inmate deaths and injuries.

In recent years, the special panel of judges has accused Brown of attempting to delay and circumvent their orders. They threatened to cite the governor for contempt if he does not comply.

The judges waived all state laws in June as they ordered Brown to expand good-time credits leading to early release. They also directed the governor to take other steps, including sending more inmates to firefighting camps, paroling elderly felons, leasing cells at county jails and slowing the return of thousands of inmates now housed in private prisons in other states.

If those steps fail, the judges ordered the state to release enough inmates from a list of lower-risk offenders until it reaches the maximum allowed population.

In its latest filing with the Supreme Court, the state argued that no governor has the unilateral authority to take the steps ordered by the three-judge panel. They would require approval in the Legislature or “judicial pre-emption of California’s core police powers,” the administration wrote.

At issue is whether the state has done enough to improve medical and mental health care in recent years and whether the original inmate population cap ordered by the federal courts remains relevant in light of those improvements.

Brown has argued that prison conditions have substantially improved and that circumstances have changed since the federal courts’ original order four years ago to reduce the prison population.

The state is spending $2 billion on new or expanded facilities for inmate medical and mental health treatment. That includes seven new centers for mental health treatment and the opening last June of an $839 million prison hospital in Stockton that will treat 1,722 inmates requiring long-term care.

The state also has boosted hiring and salaries for all types of medical and mental health professionals.

The judges want the population reduced to 137 percent of the designed capacity in the state’s 33 adult prisons by the end of the year, to a total of 110,000 inmates. That means the state will have to let about 10,000 inmates out before they have served their full sentences, after already reducing the population by 46,000 inmates since 2006.

More than half of the decrease that has occurred so far is due to a two-year-old state law — referred to as realignment — that is sentencing offenders convicted of crimes considered non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual to county jails instead of state prisons.

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