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California Asks Federal Judges to Cancel Inmate Cuts

California asked a panel of federal judges to cancel a court-ordered reduction of the state’s prison population, saying shortcomings involving inmate health care and overcrowding have been rectified.

Governor Jerry Brown’s administration said in papers filed yesterday that improvements to inmate-care programs and prison hospital construction, as well as shifting of low-level, nonviolent felons to county jails and use of alternatives to incarceration such as electronic monitoring, make the reduction unnecessary and unsafe.

Federal judges stripped California of control of its prison health-care system in 2006 after inmates filed a legal challenge to its quality. The judges then ordered the state to cut its prison population to 137 percent of capacity from 175 percent, saying overcrowding was a cause of the inadequate care. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that order in May 2011.

“The overcrowding and health-care conditions cited by this court to support its population reduction order are now a distant memory,” the state said in yesterday’s filing. “Given the superior health-care system that now exists, continued enforcement of the population reduction order would be inequitable, violate principles of federalism, and jeopardize public safety.”

Since 2006, California has cut its inmate population by 43,000. Half of that cut, Brown said, is a result of his program to shift control of low-level felons to individual counties. Still, California’s prisons remain at about 150 percent capacity, above the ceiling set by the courts.

Private Prisons

Brown, who was California’s attorney general when the federal courts took over, also today signed an executive order declaring an end to a state of emergency former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared in 2006 because of prison overcrowding. That allows him to phase out California’s use of out-of-state private prisons such as those run by Corrections Corp. of America, which now house almost 9,000 of California’s inmates.

Brown was forced to comply under protest with a court deadline yesterday for the state to detail how it would further reduce the inmate count. He called the state’s prison health care “gold-plated” and vowed to take his plea to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Design Problems

“We have gone from having serious constitutional problems to having one of the finest prison systems in the U.S.,” Brown told reporters in Sacramento today. “We don’t have a prison overcrowding problem anymore. It’s simply a design problem. It’s time we return control of prison health-care back to California.”

The cases are Coleman v. Brown, 90-520, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California (Sacramento); and Plata v. Brown, 01-1351, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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