National News

August 3, 2013

High court won’t delay release of California inmates

SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday paved the way for the early release of nearly 10,000 California inmates by year’s end despite warnings by Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials that a public safety crisis looms if they’re forced to open the prison gates.

A majority of justices refused an emergency request by the governor to halt a lower court’s directive for the early release of the prisoners to ease severe overcrowding at California’s 33 adult prisons.

The decision was met with concern by law enforcement officials in the state.

Covina Police Chief Kim Raney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said the justices ignored efforts already underway to reduce prison populations and “chose instead to allow for the release of more felons into already overburdened communities.”

Brown’s office referred a request for comment to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, where Secretary Jeff Beard vowed that the state would press on with a still-pending appeal in hope of preventing the releases.

A panel of three federal judges had previously ordered the state to cut its prison population by nearly 8 percent to roughly 110,000 inmates by Dec. 31 to avoid conditions amounting to cruel and unusual punishment. That panel, responding to decades of lawsuits filed by inmates, repeatedly ordered early releases after finding inmates were needlessly dying and suffering because of inadequate medical and mental health care caused by overcrowding.

Court-appointed experts found that the prison system had a suicide rate that worsened last year to 24 per 100,000 inmates, far exceeding the national average of 16 suicides per 100,000 inmates in state prisons.

Brown had appealed the latest decision of the panel and, separately, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to cancel the early release order while considering his arguments that the state is making significant progress in improving conditions. The high court refused Friday to stop the release but did not rule on the appeal itself. Corrections Secretary Beard said the state would press on with that, so the “merits of the case can be considered without delay.”

However, inmate lawyer Don Specter, head of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, said the ruling Friday did not bode well for the overall appeal. He said the decision underscores what inmates have been arguing for years.

“The conditions are still overcrowded,” he said. “The medical and health care remain abysmal.”

Lawyers representing Brown had argued to the high court that releasing 10,000 more inmates would mean letting violent criminals out on the streets and overwhelm the abilities of law enforcement and social services to monitor them.

“No data suggests that a sudden release of inmates with these characteristics can be done safely,” the state said in its filing. “No state has ever done it.”

The panel of federal judges has consistently rejected that argument. The judges, prisoners’ lawyers and others say other states have marginally reduced inmate sentences without sparking an increase in crime.

The governor said the state has already transferred thousands of low-level and nonviolent offenders to county jails, but that local officials in turn have been forced into releasing some inmates early to ease their own overcrowding issues.

The Supreme Court’s ruling rejected Brown’s plea over the objections of Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who all said they would have granted the state’s request.

Scalia, in a dissent joined by Thomas, wrote that the previous order by the three-judge panel was a “terrible injunction” that threatens public safety. Scalia said the state’s evidence shows it has made meaningful progress and that such reductions in the inmate population are no longer necessary.

The legal battle goes back years. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that California had to cut its inmate population to deal with unconstitutional prison conditions caused by overcrowding. It said that further delay in reducing prison overcrowding would further the substandard delivery of medical and mental health care and, by extension, lead to more inmate deaths and injuries.

In recent years, the special panel of federal judges accused Brown of attempting to delay and circumvent their orders. They previously threatened to cite the governor for contempt if he did not comply.

The judges waived all state laws in June as they ordered Brown to expand good-time credits leading to early release. They also directed the governor to take other steps, including sending more inmates to firefighting camps, paroling elderly felons, leasing cells at county jails and slowing the return of thousands of inmates now housed in private prisons in other states.

If those steps fail, the judges ordered the state to release by year’s end enough inmates from a list of lower-risk offenders until it reaches the maximum allowed population.

In its latest filing with the Supreme Court, the state argued that no governor has the unilateral authority to take the steps ordered by the three-judge panel. That would require approval by the Legislature or judicial pre-emption of California’s core police powers, the administration argued.

Brown has said the state is spending $2 billion on new or expanded facilities for inmate medical and mental health treatment. That includes seven new centers for mental health treatment and the opening last June of an $839 million prison hospital in Stockton that will treat 1,722 inmates requiring long-term care. The state also has boosted hiring and salaries for all types of medical and mental health professionals.

The state has already reduced the population by 46,000 inmates since 2006.

More than half of the decrease that has occurred so far is due to a two-year-old state law — known as realignment — that is sentencing offenders convicted of crimes considered nonviolent, non-serious and non-sexual to county jails instead of state prisons.

———

AP Writer Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this story.

 

1
Text Only
National News
  • 5 features an Amazon phone might offer

    A report this week in The Wall Street Journal that Amazon is planning to release a smartphone has prompted industry analysts and technology blogs to muse about what the device might offer.

    April 19, 2014

  • Colorado deaths stoke worries about pot edibles

    A college student eats more than the recommended dose of a marijuana-laced cookie and jumps to his death from a hotel balcony. A husband with no history of violence is accused of shooting his wife in the head, possibly after eating pot-infused candy.

    April 19, 2014

  • Boston prepares for huge wave of marathon visitors

    With an expanded field of runners and the memory of last year’s bombings elevating interest in one of the world’s great races, the 2014 Boston Marathon could bring an unprecedented wave of visitors and an influx of tourism dollars to the area.

    April 19, 2014

  • Autopsy to ID dead boy; body cast off side of road

    All Massachusetts authorities could say for sure is that they found the lifeless body of a small boy, apparently cast off the side of a highway.

    April 19, 2014

  • 10 Things to Know: This Week’s Takeaways

    Looking back at the stories to remember from the past week:

    April 19, 2014

  • Remembering an officer slain after bombs went off

    Like many other youngsters, Sean Collier wanted to be a police officer. Unlike most, he brought that dream to life — and then died doing it, becoming a central character in one of the most gripping manhunts the nation has ever seen.

    April 18, 2014

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel laureate, dies at 87

    Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez crafted intoxicating fiction from the fatalism, fantasy, cruelty and heroics of the world that set his mind churning as a child growing up on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

    April 18, 2014

  • 10 Things to Know for Friday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Friday.

    April 17, 2014

  • Why high oil prices are actually good for airlines

    Airline executives frequently complain about fuel costs. But the truth is higher prices actually have been good for business.

    April 17, 2014

  • Armed robber was never told to report to prison

    After he was convicted of armed robbery in 2000, Cornealious Anderson was sentenced to 13 years behind bars and told to await instructions on when and where to report to prison. But those instructions never came.

    April 17, 2014