LOS ANGELES — Despite California Gov. Jerry Brown's efforts to reduce prison overcrowding, a U.S. District Court three-judge panel isn't satisfied and won't lift its court oversight of the state's correction system.
The three-judge panel postponed by nearly four months to April 18 a deadline for the state to reduce the prison population to 112,000 to allow time for mediation between inmate attorneys and the state.
In a Jan. 13 ruling, the judges declared the mediation unsuccessful. The judges also ordered attorneys to file proposed orders by Jan. 23 to help the court make a decision on the state's request for a three-year extension, according to court documents.
Plaintiff's attorney Donald Specter declined to comment. Plaintiff's attorney Michael Bien, a partner with Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld, failed to return calls.
If the judges rule against further postponement in the class action suits that extend back to the 1990s, the state will have to move 6,000 more inmates from its 34 prisons, according to Jeff Callison, press secretary of the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Part of that will be accomplished by contracting with private in-state and out of state prisons. The state already houses 9,000 prisoners out of state, according to Callison.
The numbers also will be reduced when the state opens in April an expansion of the Stockton medical facility that will house about 1,100 mentally ill inmates, Callison said. It is also constructing additional medium-security facilities on the grounds of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego and Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, 40 miles southeast of Sacramento, that will house a combined 2,376 inmates. Those facilities, expected to cost $700 million, will not be completed until mid-2016.
State officials don't see building new prisons on the state or county level as the answer to the problem, said Callison, who emphasized the state's multi-pronged approach focused on rehabilitation and shifting non-violent offenders to county jails or rehabilitation facilities.
"Building prisons results in massive fixed costs for years to come - and those buildings may not be needed in 10 or 12 years," Callison said. "The state built a couple dozen new prisons from 1984 to 1997 and ended up at 200% of design capacity."
The lawsuits stem from claims that prisoners were living in inhumane conditions that included not receiving healthcare because of the overcrowded conditions.
The orders from the judges require the state to reduce the population to 137.5% of design capacity. The judges already have granted three postponements since 2009 for the state to meet that target.
Part of the dilemma for the state is that the prison population changes daily as inmates are released or incarcerated making the numbers a moving target, Callison said.
Brown built hopes for a two-year extension from the federal panel into his 2014-15 budget released Jan. 9, and allocated $81 million to rehabilitation programs to reduce the number of repeat offenders. He said during his budget announcement last week if an extension isn't granted that money would be used to shift prisoners to private prisons.
This structure was laid out through a bill introduced in September 2013 as part of a bipartisan agreement in the state legislature.
Senate Bill 105 asks the court for more time, but authorizes up to $315 million to increase in-state and out-of-state capacity in the near term.
It requires that if the court modifies the order in a way that reduces the cost of compliance, the first $81 million in savings will go to reducing recidivism.
The movement away from building state prisons is resulting in more construction at the county level, however.
A partly bond-financed program to shift some of the burden to county jails and rehabilitation programs over the past two years has reduced the number of prisoners that would have previously been sentenced to state prison by 25,000, Callison said.
Through sentencing changes the state began shifting non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenders to county jails after Assembly Bill 109 became law on Oct. 1, 2011.
The California Board of State and Community Corrections on Thursday approved a $500 million award to 15 counties to construct jails and create rehabilitation programs following a hearing in downtown Los Angeles.
The approval came after heated comments from counties that were not selected about the scoring system used to determine which counties receive funding. Those counties will have 30 days to appeal.
BSCC Chair Kathleen Howard said the $500 million approved by the legislature last year "is a relatively small amount approved for a state as large as California and it is a competition."
The state "had 36 counties apply for $1.3 billion worth of projects and we could only fund $500 million. That is why the governor put another $500 million in this year's budget hoping to plug the gap," Tracie Cone, spokeswoman for the board of State and Community Corrections, said in an interview.
The approvals would result in the addition of nearly 2,300 beds, mostly for pre-trial facilities, although Santa Barbara County's $38 million request would add 228 minimum-medium security beds as well as treatment and program space for transitional re-entry.
A BSCC executive steering committee recommended the board select 15 counties on Dec. 12 following presentations made by applicants in Sacramento on Dec. 4-5. The counties that receive money are required to contribute a minimum of 10% to their total project costs. The projects closest to being shovel-ready were given precedence as were those aimed at not just increasing jail beds, but also at creating programs to decrease the number of repeat offenders, Cone said.
"Some counties have jails that were built in the 1950s or 1960s that are not efficient, so sometimes the projects will result in fewer beds, but a more efficient use of space," Cone said. "The common element was creating more space for rehabilitation programs."
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, a board member, said during the hearing that not enough weight was given to rehabilitation programs in the scoring.
The awards ranged from $6.5 million for a 64-bed pre-trial facility with program space adjacent to the Tehama County Jail to $80 million for a 384-bed pre-trial facility in Orange County.
The State Public Works Board would issue lease-revenue bonds to pay for the construction projects. But that probably would not occur for three to six years, because bonds would be sold near the end of construction or once construction is completed, according to the state's Department of Finance.
In 2012, the first year that realignment took effect, many counties that received money for jail construction and programs did not spend it, because they weren't certain the state would provide ongoing funding, Cone said. That changed after Proposition 30 passed, providing a constitutional funding stream for the program, she said.
"Since then, counties have been ramping up," Cone said. "They are being more innovative in the use of jail space, have increased the use of ankle monitors and are getting people into programs."