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Despite reprieve, California fights prison crowding order

An inmate makes a phone call from his cell at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
An inmate makes a phone call from his cell at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - As a deadline looms for California to comply with a federal court order to reduce crowding in its mammoth and troubled prison system, state officials are scrambling to fight - or at a minimum to delay - its implementation.

Failing to find a way to reduce crowding would open Democratic Governor Jerry Brown to charges of contempt of court, and could ultimately force the state by January 27 to release as many as 8,000 inmates before they have completed their sentences.

But a combination of politics, budgetary constraints and a belief by Brown that the courts are wrong, have spurred the state to fight back at many levels, even in the face of a small olive branch from a panel of federal judges.

"They're fighting everything at every turn," said attorney Ernest Galvan, who represents inmates in one of two cases underpinning the overcrowding rulings. "Wherever possible they're stalling for more time."

Overcrowding is just one of several issues plaguing the California penal system. A hunger strike over the state's practice of keeping suspected prison gang members in solitary confinement for years drew 30,000 participants at its peak. This week, hearings are scheduled in a lawsuit alleging that inappropriate force was used against mentally ill inmates.

For Brown, fighting the crowding order is partly about politics, said Barry Krisberg, an expert in corrections at the University of California at Berkeley law school. In addition, Brown believes the court is wrong to demand that, if necessary, the state reduce crowding by releasing prisoners early.

"From what I hear, the governor is deeply resentful of the federal courts taking over the prison system," said Krisberg, who in 2006 testified as an expert witness for prisoners in the crowding case. "And secondarily he actually believes that there are a lot of really bad people in prison."

The state's actions are also colored by budgetary constraints. Many of the programs Brown is now promising to spend money on for rehabilitation - including educational programs and other services for inmates - were cut during the deep budget crisis that accompanied the economic downturn.

RARE CONCESSION

Brown has said in numerous court filings that despite the state's dire budget situation, California spent over a billion dollars improving conditions in the prisons, and the state has also made room - and saved money - by shifting jurisdiction for some inmates and parolees to counties.

But in June, the panel of federal judges overseeing the crowding issue threatened Brown with contempt if he did not get the prison population down to 137.5 percent of capacity by the end of this year - even if that meant releasing inmates early.

Last week, the judges made a rare concession to California's requests, granting a one-month delay in response to a promise from the state that, it would be able to reduce the prison population through rehabilitation, if only given more time.

In a move that many said was a hopeful sign, the judges ordered state officials to sit down with lawyers representing inmates to try to work out a deal. A longer-term extension, the judges wrote, was still a possibility if the talks were productive. The judges asked the state to refrain from seeking out-of-state beds for prisoners while the talks were going on.

But two days after the judges' order, the Brown administration rushed an angry brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging the panel's ruling.

It is not clear, analysts say, whether the move will anger the federal panel, and Supreme Court consideration of the case at all is considered a remote possibility by many.

But Martin Hoshino, California's Undersecretary for Corrections and Rehabilitation, said even though the state looked forward to the possibility of mediation talks with inmate lawyers, its legal position that the federal judges were over-reaching could not be neglected.

"We felt that the three-judge panel had now taken another action that we felt the Supreme Court should be aware of," said Martin Hoshino, the state's Undersecretary for Corrections and Rehabilitation. "We're covering all of our bases."

State senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg, who has pushed to ease crowding by reducing recidivism instead of expanding capacity or simply releasing prisoners, said he understands the administration's legal position.

But he said the upcoming mediation offered a rare opportunity to develop a nuanced solution.

"Everybody's in the fight," Steinberg said. "Let's move from the fight to something that is much better - for the criminal justice system and for the taxpayers."

(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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