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California lawmakers reach deal to reduce prison crowding

An inmate stands in his cell at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
An inmate stands in his cell at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California lawmakers plan to ask a panel of federal judges to reconsider an end-of-year deadline to ease prison overcrowding, saying the state could spend money to shrink inmate numbers through rehabilitation if only given more time.

The judges have ordered the most populous U.S. state, which holds 120,000 prisoners in 34 facilities, to reduce the prison population by about 8,000, either by finding that many new prison beds or by releasing the inmates that pose the lowest risk to society.

California Governor Jerry Brown has decried the order, which stems from years of lawsuits over prison conditions, as expensive and dangerous. But the judges have refused to budge, threatening to hold Brown personally in contempt of court if he does not comply.

Last month, Brown proposed spending up to $730 million over two years to house inmates in out-of-state prisons, county jails and private lockups. His plan was blocked by progressive Democrats in the state senate who preferred to ask the judges to allow a plan that would offer rehabilitation services to inmates instead.

On Monday, flanked by legislative leaders from both parties, Brown said he would ask the judges to grant an extension of a December 31 deadline to ease crowding, in exchange for a promise to spend up to $400 million on rehabilitation efforts, including mental health services for inmates.

If the judges refuse, only then would the state go ahead and pay for beds in other jurisdictions and private prisons, said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who led the protest against Brown's original plan.

"We are taking a risk, but it is a very good risk," he said. "Because we know that everybody, including the court, wants a long-term solution."

Spending money on rehabilitation, Steinberg said, would reduce crowding over time by helping inmates avoid recidivism.

ONGOING SPAT

The proposal is the latest move in an ongoing spat between the state and a panel of three federal judges in the wake of two lawsuits over poor medical and mental health care - found to be rooted in overcrowding - in California state prisons.

If Brown does not find new housing for enough inmates to reduce the prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity, the court ruled, he must release enough inmates - about 8,000 - to reach the goal that way.

The order to reduce crowding is just one of several problems facing the state prison system. A hunger strike over solitary confinement policies drew 30,000 participants at its peak, lasting nearly eight weeks before finally ending last week.

The new plan, Brown told a news conference, "is a lot more balanced" than the old one.

If the court does not grant the extension, the state will revert to Brown's original plan of spending $315 million next year and $415 million the following year to lease beds for California prisoners from other jurisdictions and private prisons.

Republican legislative leaders also signed on to the plan, saying they were pleased that under both alternatives inmates would not be released early simply to ease overcrowding.

Lawmakers are expected to pass legislation authorizing the request to the court and the expenditures for prison expansion or rehabilitation this week.

(Editing by Scott Malone, Cynthia Johnston and Christopher Wilson)

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