Calif. Governor and Prison Lawyers Fail at Negotiating, Judges Step In
By Paige St. John and Anthony York
Gov. Jerry Brown and lawyers for state prison inmates have failed to agree on a plan to handle crowding in the state's prisons, and the judges who ordered the two sides into talks said they would now order a solution themselves.
The judges gave Brown and the prisoners' attorneys until Jan. 23 to file proposals for achieving "durable compliance" with population limits that are scheduled to go into effect April 18.
The federal jurists -- U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson in San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento, and 9th Circuit Appellate Judge Stephen Reinhardt in Los Angeles -- had set last Friday as a deadline for a negotiated solution to overcrowding that they say endangers inmates' health and safety.
But after three months of talks, "it now appears that no such agreement will be reached," the judges said in an order released Monday.
The jurists said they would make their decision within a month, possibly extending the April deadline.
Brown said Tuesday that any deal permitting the early release of offenders would have been untenable.
"We've talked a lot to the prison lawyers, and I understand their job is to get people out of prison, regardless of what the law may say," he told reporters in Bakersfield, where he stopped during a brief state tour to discuss policy issues. "My job is to protect public safety."
The governor said he would handle any order to further lower inmate numbers by moving more prisoners to privately owned lockups and county facilities.
"We're prepared to respond, and certainly over the next couple years to purchase more prison capacity," Brown said.
Brown had asked the judges to delay the population caps by three years. The state budget he proposed last week assumes at least a two-year delay.
The judges' latest order means a short delay before Brown and state lawmakers learn whether they will need to increase spending to send more prisoners to alternate facilities.
If the judges push the April deadline back to 2016, as Brown seeks, the governor proposes in his budget to direct $81 million in savings to prisoner rehabilitation programs.
Meanwhile, as the governor revealed in his budget plan, he is immediately extending eligibility for parole to more frail and elderly inmates, as well as expanding the number of some repeat offenders eligible for early release.
Those steps would make about 2,200 inmates newly eligible to be removed from the prisons, but state officials have told the court they expect only about 440 to be freed in the first six months of such changes.
California's prison population has dropped by more than 27,000 since Brown took office. But state reports show it has been growing since June and will continue to expand in the coming years.
"We are hopeful the court will recognize that the state has made significant reforms to our criminal justice system and will allow us an extension so we can build upon these landmark reforms," corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said.
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