CDCR Overcrowding

ACLU of California Urges Sentencing Reform to Reduce California Prison Population

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation logo

SAN FRANCISCO – The U.S. Supreme Court today ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population in order to alleviate extreme overcrowding that endangers the health and safety of the state's prisoners and prison staff. The court ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity. The system is nearly at 200 percent of capacity.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California applauds today's U.S. Supreme Court order.

The ACLU of California is encouraging legislators to take a long-term approach to solving the problem of prison overcrowding by instituting sentencing reforms to reduce the penalties for low level non-violent offenses from felony sentences to misdemeanors. Contrary to some accounts, the court order does not require the release of prisoners – it requires reducing prison populations. The ACLU believes this is best achieved through front end parole and sentencing reforms.

The following can be attributed to Abdi Soltani, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California:

"Reduction of prison populations is necessary not only to meet the Constitutional standards required by the Supreme Court, but also to balance prison spending with other priorities as we solve the remaining $10 billion state budget deficit. Felony sentences should be for people who have committed serious crimes – not simple drug possession or writing $450 worth of bad checks."

More than 9,000 people are currently in state prison for possessing a small amount of drugs for personal use. California spends $47,000 each year to lock each of these people up.

According to a new poll, solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents from every corner of the state believe that too many people are imprisoned and that penalties for minor offenses are too harsh. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of likely voters support reducing the penalty for simple possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use.

In addition to changing the penalty for simple possession of drugs, the ACLU of California also supports making low-level, non-violent property offenses misdemeanors, instead of felonies. If charged as misdemeanors, the maximum sentence that can be imposed is one year in county jail. A deputy D.A. in Woodland, CA, recently pressed for a felony conviction of a mentally ill man caught stealing a candy bar.


The decision affirms a lower court ruling in two long-running cases in which the medical and mental health care provided in California's prisons was found to be so deficient that it endangers the lives of prisoners and violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

A special three-judge federal court determined in 2009 that severe overcrowding was a primary cause of the constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care provided to prisoners and would only be improved by a reduction in the prison population.

Federal judges reject California request to delay inmate releases

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 3, 2013 - 4:08 pm

A panel of three federal judges overseeing California's prison overcrowding case today denied Gov. Jerry Brown's request for a stay of their order that the state immediately begin reducing inmate populations by nearly 10,000 inmates.

The state had sought a stay of the panel's June 20 inmate reduction order while it sought a different outcome before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the three-judge panel rejected the request for a stay, reiterating their earlier finding that California has defied orders to reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of capacity by the end of this year.

The judges noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 upheld their finding that inmate populations had to be reduced to afford inmates proper access to health care and mental health services.

"After this long history of defendants' noncompliance, this court cannot in good conscience grant a stay that would allow defendants to both not satisfy the Population Reduction Order and re-litigate the Supreme Court's emphatic decision in the very case before us," today's order concluded.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Judges: Brown must fully comply with prison order

Panel stopped short of citing the governor for contempt

UPDATED 7:52 PM PDT Jun 20, 2013

SACRAMENTO, Calif. —A panel of federal judges on Thursday rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's attempt to circumvent its long-standing order for reducing California's prison population, the latest step in an ongoing legal drama over how to improve inmates' medical and mental health care inmates.

Brown quickly announced that he will ask the courts to stay what he called an "unprecedented order to release almost 10,000 inmates by the end of this year." The governor already filed notice that he intends to appeal the latest order to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The judges stopped just short of citing the Democratic governor for contempt of court, but again threatened to do so if he does not immediately comply with their latest order.

The plan submitted by the Brown administration in May to further reduce the inmate population failed to meet the judges' mandate because it fell short of the court-ordered population cap by 2,300 inmates, the judges said in their 51-page order. That previous population reduction order has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The judges reiterated in their sharply worded ruling that the governor must comply with the original order to reduce the population to 110,000 inmates by the end of the year. They ordered Brown to take all the steps he outlined in May, as well as one more step - the expansion of good-time credits leading to early release. Brown had offered that as an option, but it was not one he was willing to embrace.

The governor's plan for getting closer to the required level called for sending more inmates to firefighting camps, leasing cells at county jails, slowing the return of thousands of inmates now housed in private prisons in other states, increasing early release credits for nonviolent inmates and paroling elderly felons.

The judges ordered the administration to implement all the measures regardless of whether they conflict with state or local laws.

At issue is how far the state must go in reducing its inmate population to meet a previous court order to improve medical and mental health treatment. The courts have said that prison overcrowding is the main cause of care that fails to meet the constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.

The order leaves Brown with no more excuses, said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office and one of the lead attorneys representing inmates' welfare.

"The court's order is absolutely essential to maintaining prison conditions that protect prisoners from serious illness and death due to inadequate health care," Specter said. The court had no choice because Brown and Democrats who control the state Legislature were refusing to comply with its previous orders, he said.

However, the judges offered the state some flexibility in how it complies.

The administration can revise the expanded good-time credit program, so long as the changes still result in the required population reduction. It can also pick and choose among inmates, substituting those who are deemed less likely to commit new crimes for riskier convicts who would otherwise be released early. Or, it can pick any other measure that was previously on the administration's list of options.

But if the population goal is not met through other means by Dec. 31, "defendants shall release the necessary number of prisoners to reach that goal" by using a list of lower-risk inmates that the state has previously said it could develop.

Though Brown argues otherwise, the court has found that "there is no public safety issue" with the earlier releases, said Michael Bien, the lead attorney representing mentally ill inmates.

The state has reduced its prison population by more than 46,000 inmates since 2006, with more than half the decrease due to a 2-year-old state law that is sentencing lower-level criminals to county jails instead of state prisons. But the population remains about 9,400 inmates over the level required by the courts.

The state has said it can whittle the population further by the end of the year but would remain 2,300 inmates over the court-ordered number.

The administration said it is doing everything it can under California law, but that Brown's reluctantly adopted plan had little support from state lawmakers. Specter said Thursday's ruling removes that obstacle.

The judges warned Brown in April that he could no longer ignore its orders. They opted in their latest order not to cite Brown for contempt, though they said they would be well justified if they were to "institute contempt proceedings immediately."

They decided to delay a contempt citation until they see if the state complies with their new order. However, they warned that failing to comply now with the latest order "shall constitute an act of contempt."

  • Text Size:
  • A
  • A
  • A

Brown: Judges' order will lead to 10K inmates on streets of California

Read more:

Judges tell California to cut prisoner count by 10,000

Related Topics

LOS ANGELES | Thu Jun 20, 2013 7:45pm EDT

(Reuters) - A panel of federal judges ordered California on Thursday to ease overcrowding in state prisons by reducing the number of inmates by about 10,000 this year, and criticized in harsh terms what they described as foot-dragging in dealing with the matter.

The three-judge panel also repeated an earlier warning to potentially hold California Governor Jerry Brown in contempt if a reduction plan is not implemented. The governor said he would seek a stay of the ruling.

California, the nation's most populous state, has been under court orders to reduce inmate numbers in its 33-prison system since 2009, when the same three-judge panel ordered it to relieve overcrowding that has caused inadequate medical and mental healthcare.

The issue has become a political football for Brown, partly because reducing the population in state prisons has meant that local jurisdictions have to host some convicts in county jails who previously would have been sent to state prisons.

Earlier this year, the judges rebuffed a request by Brown to vacate the 2009 order. Brown had contended the state had fixed the crowding problem and that further prisoner releases would harm public safety.

"The history of this litigation is of defendants' repeated failure to take the necessary steps to remedy the constitutional violations in its prison system," the judges said in Thursday's ruling.

The three jurists - Stephen Reinhardt, Lawrence K. Karlton and Thelton E. Henderson - said the state's "unwillingness to comply" with a ruling to reduce prison overcrowding requires them "to order additional relief."


The judges said if current efforts to reduce crowding do not result in the state reaching a prison population target of 137.5 percent of capacity by the end of the year, the state must then free prisoners from a list of inmates at low risk of recidivism.

"Failure to take such steps or to report on such steps every two weeks shall constitute an act of contempt," the judges said.

Brown, a Democrat, has said he lacks the authority to enact certain measures to reduce prison crowding. In court papers filed earlier this month, attorneys for the governor said state officials were working on legislation to solve that problem.

The legislation would, among other things, make it easier for inmates to be released on parole for medical reasons and establish a parole process for elderly inmates who are a low risk to the public, the state's court papers said.

Thursday's ruling stemmed from class action litigation accusing the state of failing to provide prisoners with adequate mental and medical healthcare. That led to a 2009 ruling that treatment of inmates in the state's overcrowded prison system violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the 2009 order to reduce California's prison population.

Don Specter, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, said the ruling would mean cutting the prison population to around 109,000 inmates from about 119,000 currently, which amounts to about 150 percent of capacity for the prison system.

"The ruling is absolutely essential in order for prisoners to be safe and to get adequate healthcare," Specter said.

Brown said in a statement that the state would seek an immediate stay of what he termed an "unprecedented order to release almost 10,000 inmates by the end of this year."

A spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation declined to provide immediate comment.

(Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in San Francisco; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)

California's Prison Crisis is Now a Constitutional Crisis

Gov. Jerry Brown won't obey a federal court ruling over state prisons. The federal judiciary is threatening contempt sanctions. Who will budge?

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Something extraordinary is happening in California. A long-running story about the atrocious conditions in the state's prisons has expanded in the past two weeks into a story about state sovereignty, the doctrine of interposition, and about the ability and will of the nation's judges to oversee the enforcement of the lawful orders they issue. The California prison crisis, in other words, has become an existential crisis over federal and state power.

California Gov. Jerry Brown is openly defying a series of federal orders requiring state officials to reduce California's prison population to comply with the requirements of the Eighth Amendment. Instead of obeying these orders, which were directly approved by the Supreme Court, the governor instead has made a series of false and inflamatory statements about the law, the courts, the inmate problem and California's efforts so far to solve it.

Meanwhile, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a rising star in national Democratic politics who is seen by some as a potential Supreme Court nominee, has authorized or permitted the filing of a series of dubious motions and briefs on behalf of the state as it tries to weasel out of its constitutional requirements to the inmates. Rejected and scorned by federal judges over the past two weeks, these court filings are largely void of dispositive facts and unworthy of a first-year associate, much less the chief lawyer of our nation's most populous state.

Some of the coverage of this conflict sadly has displayed a measure of "false equivalence." Gov. Brown's position has been juxtaposed with the judicial orders as though the matter were still in legal doubt. Don't be fooled by this coverage. There is no such dispute. There is what the Supreme Court and the lower courts have ordered to be done on behalf of the inmates. There is the failure and refusal of California to get it done. There is whining from state officials. And there is now the whiff of contempt sanctions against the governor and his tribunes.

The History

The procedural history of this current generation of California prison cases, well into their second decade of litigation, is terribly complicated. The core of the story is not. In August 2009, a three-judge federal panel, after an exhaustive review of the evidence, concluded that to comply with constitutional standards California would need to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of its prisons' design capacities within two years. There were simply too many inmates, the judges found, and too few beds, medical staff and other resources.

California appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. In May 2011, in a decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, a native Californian, the Court broadly upheld the 2009 ruling. There was little ambiguity from the Court's majority: the state had until June 2013 to comply. In October 2011, California began to empty its prisons. "Thousands of inmates either serving prison terms or parole revocation terms for 'non-serious, non-violent and non-registerable sex crimes' were shifted to county jails," the judicial panelists noted.

California's governor, in effect, unilaterally declared an end to his state's constitutional obligation to end the prison emergency.

But then, California's progress stopped well short of the 137.5 percent benchmark the courts had ordered. Why? Because of political pressure generated by the shifting of the inmates from state to county facilities. First, state lawyers asked the judges to raise the benchmark. Then, they sought a delay until December 2013 to comply with the order. Then, California's lawyers argued that prison officials could comply with their obligations even if they couldn't meet the benchmark.

Throughout 2012, California officials, attorneys for the inmates, and the federal judges fussed over the state's failure to comply with the court orders. Over and over, the judicial panel gave state officials time and opportunities to fix the problem. Over and over, the prisoners' lawyers complained about the pace of the progress. Over and over, California refused to commit to a plan that would bring the prisons into compliance by June 2013, or even December 2013. And then, in early January of this year, the state simply gave up trying.

On January 8, 2013, Gov. Brown announced that as of July 2013 he would no longer use whatever "emergency powers" he has as chief executive to comply with the order. He announced that "prison crowding no longer poses safety risks to prison staff or inmates, nor does it inhibit the delivery of timely and effective health care services to inmates." California's governor, in effect, unilaterally declared an end to his state's constitutional obligation to end the prison emergency. One day earlier, his lawyers had quietly filed motions to terminate federal judicial oversight over state prisons.

The Judges

In connection with Gov. Brown's public pronouncement, California filed two motions: one to eliminate the overpopulation order, and one in which state officials asked to freed from their constitutional obligation to provide better mental health care for the inmates. The two motions had much in common—the gist of both was "we've done enough for the inmates"—but neither was supported by reliable evidence indicating that state officials had improved conditions within the prisons enough so as to render the court orders satisfied or irrelevant.

On April 5th, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton rejected the mental health motion after concluding state lawyers didn't come close to meeting their legal or factual burdens to improve conditions for the inmates: "Systemic failures persist in the form of inadequate suicide prevention measures, excessive administrative segregation of the mentally ill, lack of timely access to adequate care, insufficient treatment space and access to beds, and unmet staffing needs," the judge wrote. (Here is The Atlantic's coverage of that ruling.)

Then, last Thursday, the three-judge panel overseeing the overcrowding case rendered a similar ruling. In a unanimous decision blunt in its condemnation of state policies, the judges refused to end their oversight over the state's prisons—and ramped up their concern about California's continuing failure to abide by the existing court order. The text of this ruling is striking for two reasons. First, it vividly details how much the judges have done to help California comply. Second, it highlights the dubious positions taken by state lawyers.

"Defendants have already lost this argument," the judges wrote of California's request to avoid its obligations to reduce overcrowding, "and they should not be allowed to relitigate it once again... [T]hey have presented very little evidence," the judges added. "Most of this evidence is irrelevant, as it points to partial compliance with this Court's Order and not to a resolution of the problems of overcrowding. The remaining, relevant evidence is far too minimal" to prove that "overcrowding is no longer the primary cause of ongoing constitutional violations."

Then the judges wrote this remarkable passage:

Oddly, defendants appear to read the results of their partial compliance with the Order in a rather unusual manner. They argue that, because the Order thus far has been effective in making progress toward its ultimate objective, we should terminate it, call off the rest of the plan, and declare victory before defendants can meet the Order's most important objective—to reduce the population to 137.5% design capacity and eliminate overcrowding as the primary cause of unconstitutional medical and mental health conditions.

That is not the way the judicial system, or any other national system, functions. Indeed, the effectiveness of the Order thus far is not an argument for vacating it, but rather an argument for keeping it in effect and continuing to make progress toward reaching its ultimate goal.

The legal rule, the court reminded state lawyers that "parties must comply whether or not they believe a court's order is incorrect and must do so during any period that they may be contesting its validity is applicable to public and private parties alike." And then, in case the message was lost on the executive branch, the judges emphasized it before warning that California state officials would be held in contempt if they blew off their responsibilities to the inmates:

That Governor Brown may believe, contrary to the evidence before this Court, that 'prison overcrowding [is] no longer... inhibit[ing] the delivery of timely and effective health services' will not constitute an excuse for his failure to comply with the orders of this Court. Having been granted a six-month extension, defendants have no further excuse for non-compliance.

The Governor

It has been fascinating to watch the arc of Gov. Brown's reaction to these defeats in court. At first, he pretended that all was well with its prisons.* Ten days ago, for example, following Judge Karlton's ruling, a spokesman for the governor said, "It's unfortunate that the judge didn't give the appropriate weight to reports by national experts who found that [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] is providing constitutional mental health care to inmates, and in fact is a model for the nation."

Then, last Thursday, immediately after the three-judge panel rejected California's attempt to evade the "overcrowding" ruling, the governor got angry. "Jerry Brown defiant of contempt of court threat in prison case," screamed one headline Friday. "Gov. Brown vows fight with judges over prisons," screamedanother. One such story had him vowing to "litigate until the Supreme Court tells us we're not on the right track," which, of course, the Supreme Court "told" California very clearly in its May 2011 ruling.

Gov. Brown was in China when the last week's ruling was handed down. Clearly someone sensible got to him there following his initial remarks and urged him to tone down his defiant rhetoric. By Saturday, he dutifully began talking like an elected official who wasn't spoiling for a constitutional showdown after all. "I did speak with my lawyers" about the "overcrowding ruling," the governor toldreporters. "I said, 'Take a good luck at this stuff... We'll review it very, very carefully. We take it seriously."

By Sunday, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, Gov. Brown was telling reporters, "We've got to come up with a plan... [the Supreme Court] may not issue a stay." I suspect the federal judges who issued the order are gratified both that the governor no longer is disrespecting their rulings or expecting the justices in Washington to ride to the rescue. Yet, the governor's latest comments do little to quell the problem here: California was required to "come up a plan" two years ago and it clearly has failed to do so.

Gov. Brown has a right to be frustrated. The question of how to reduce the state's inmate population without unduly jeopardizing public safety is terribly complicated—but it is not unsolvable. For decades, California has tolerated an arbitrary and capricious prison system which the federal judiciary has consistently declared to represent an "ongoing constitutional violation." The solution won't be cheap. But we are either governed by the rule of law or we are not. And if we are, it's not up a governor to disobey clear judicial authority.

The Attorney General

A few years from now, if Kamala Harris is ever nominated to the federal bench, and especially if she is nominated to the Supreme Court, she surely should have to answer for the legal work presented by California since the beginning of the year. Gov. Brown was not the first client ever to hold his breath and jump up and down over a bad result in litigation. And, by definition, the work of an attorney general is political in nature. But what's Harris' excuse, as a lawyer, for allowing California to file and argue such poorly-conceived motions?

California has legal and ethical standards which may govern here. A lawyer may not present a motion "for an improper purpose, such as to harass or cause unnecessary delay." In such a motion, the "claims, defenses, and other legal contentions therein" must be "warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law or the establishment of existing law." Allegations and "factual contentions" must have "evidentiary support."

You could make a reasonable argument that California's work over the past four months skirts these standards. Or you could read the two recent rulings which essentially make that same point. The three-judge panel clearly was not convinced that California offered any facts or law justifying the relief it requested. Judge Karlton's April 5th ruling, meanwhile, practically accused state officials—including state lawyers—of misconduct because they improperly interrogated mentally ill prisoners without telling the prisoners' lawyers of the questioning.

Indeed, both federal court rulings that rejected California's arguments contained language you rarely see in opinions involving state lawyers. That's why the panel last week threatened to hold Gov. Brown in contempt if California doesn't solve the problem. And that's why it will likely be easier than it was the first time for Justice Kennedy to tell his fellow Californians that he wants more action, and less talk, when it comes to prison reform.

The governor may have gotten all the great headlines last week, but the federal courts still have the facts and the law on their side.

*Unrelated to this litigation, but certainly coming at a relevant time for purposes of public pronouncements of the strength of the state's prison system, the Inspector General of California issued a regular report earlier this monthwhich listed 278 cases of alleged staff misconduct within the state prison system. If the California penal system is a "model for the nation" in any way, it is not likely a good thing for the news.

California report paints new picture of prison crowding


Inmates return to their cells after showering in a cell block at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy. Built in 1953, the prison houses more than 3,700 convicts in a facility designed for about 1,700 inmates. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times / January 26, 2012)

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

Lawyers for California inmates say overcrowding within the state's prisons is worse than corrections officials admit, and they cite a state report as the basis for their claim.

The document surfaced last week as Gov. Jerry Brown's administration and lawyers representing prisoners prepare their arguments in a federal court battle over whether the state's prison crisis is, as Brown claimed in January, "over."

Prisoner lawyers filed a motion on Monday morning to admit the 2011 document, a study on prison capacity, into the record. They say the study shows corrections officials and their experts calculated the current safe operating capacity of the state's prisons at 103,470 inmates.

That is 15,600 fewer than the number of inmates now housed in state prisons. It also is about 6,000 beds fewer than what federal courts have set as a cap for California to reach as part of an order to provide inmates with constitutionally adequate care.

However, the state report also showed that experts believed California could increase the number of inmates it could safely house to nearly 129,000, primarily by maximizing the time prisoners spend out of their cells. The report's authors said that higher number illustrates the potential gain for the state, even if it could not implement those programs in every prison.

Brown has said the debate over the capacity of state prisons is an artificial one, with little bearing at this point on the quality of care inmates receive. Medical experts working for the courts, the state and prisoners' lawyers are currently touring state prisons in preparation for courtroom arguments over whether that care is now adequate.

[Updated, 4:38 p.m. March 11: "California’s prisoners have enough room. It’s the way we calculate capacity that’s the problem," said Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The three judges hearing the litigation Monday afternoon agreed to allow the report into the record and gave California five days to respond.]

I would have to agree with Jeffrey Callison on this one, its time for CDCR to take a hard look at the fact that capacity should not be based on the number of bunks you can squeeze into a space. Other more important factors such as Resources: Mediacal, Staff, Visitations & Programs should be part of this calculation.
April 22, 2012 9:23 AM

The cost of a nation of incarceration 

Who was the Virgin Mary?

(CBS News) Is it fair to call the United States the "incarceration nation"? That's what some experts say. And even some veteran law enforcement and correction officials think something's gone wrong. Our Cover Story is reported now by Martha Teichner:


At the Gadsden County Jail near Tallahassee, Fla., there are bunks, and mattresses on the floor.


The jail has a capacity of about 150 inmates, but there are presently 230 inmates in the facility right now.


Walter McNeil, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, sees the same story everywhere he goes in the U.S.


In one "pod" of Gadsen jail, in which there are 24 bunks, there are 28 inmates - and by the time the weekend comes, there will be five or six more inmates.



That's nothing compared to California. Overcrowding was so bad there, the U.S. Supreme Court called it "cruel and unusual punishment," and last May ordered the state to cut its prison population by more than 30,000.


Nationwide, the numbers are staggering: Nearly 2.4 million people behind bars, even though over the last 20 years the crime rate has actually dropped by more than 40 percent.


"The United States has about 5 percent of the world's population, but we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners - we incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any country on Earth," said Michael Jacobson, director of the non-partisan Vera Institute of Justice. He also ran New York City's jail and probation systems in the 1990s.


A report by the organization, "The Price of Prisons," states that the cost of incarcerating one inmate in Fiscal 2010 was $31,307 per year. "In states like Connecticut, Washington state, New York, it's anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000," he said.


Yes - $60,000 a year. That's a teacher's salary, or a firefighter's. Our epidemic of incarceration costs us taxpayers $63.4 billion a year.


The explosion in incarceration began in the early 1970s - the political response to an explosion in urban violence and increased drug use.


"So 'Tough on crime,' 'three strikes, you're out,' 'Let 'em rot, throw away the key' - all that stuff resulted in more mandatory sentencing, longer and longer sentencing," said Jacobson.

Website Builder