Darrell Steinberg

LOS ANGELES — A three-judge panel granted California a two-year extension Monday on a deadline to reduce prison overcrowding, reducing the likelihood that thousands of state inmates will be released early.

State officials had asked the federal panel for a three-year extension.

"It is encouraging that the three-judge court has agreed to a two-year extension," Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement. "The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer."

If the judges had ruled against another extension in the class action suits that extend back to the 1990s, the state would have had to move 6,000 more inmates from its 34 prisons, according to prison officials.

"It's dead on," said state Senate President Pro tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat. "We are very pleased."

Last summer Steinberg, the Senate's president pro tempore, came out against a $730 million proposal by the governor for additional contracts to house prisoners in out-of-state facilities to bring the prison population to 137.5% of design capacity, as the court ordered in a 2011 ruling.

Steinberg opposed the idea because it didn't include rehabilitation programs.

The three Democrats - Steinberg, Brown, and Assembly Speaker John Perez - worked with two Republican leaders, Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff and Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, to craft a plan to tackle the immediate concerns about early release of prisoners and help fund programs to deal with recidivism.

"Last summer it appeared that the only options were to release thousands of prisoners early or spend millions for more jail space," Steinberg said. "We suggested alternatives and those alternatives required an extension."

The result was Senate Bill 105, providing $350 million this year for additional capacity to deal with overcrowding, but allowing the money to fund rehabilitation programs instead if the court granted an extension.

"Our work isn't done as a result of the court order," Steinberg said. "I emphasize it is the beginning of a shift."

Steinberg said the only thing that will reduce overcrowding is sentencing reform and investing in programs that combat recidivism.

California now has until Feb. 28, 2015 to reduce its prison numbers to 137.5% of capacity. It also has to hit interim benchmarks of 143% by June 30, 2014 and 141.5% by Feb. 28, 2015.

The court order prohibits the state from increasing the current number of 8,900 inmates housed in out-of-state private prisons to further reduce overcrowding.

"We didn't want to increase the number of prisoners in out-of-state beds anyway," said Jeffrey Callison, press secretary for California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation.

The judges' ruling included a laundry list of reforms prison officials had suggested to the court. That list includes a court-appointed compliance officer to assist the state in selecting prisoners for release if the state misses any benchmarks.

"We suggested the court appointed compliance officer in our proposed order," Callison said. "If all the measures we are undertaking is insufficient, then an office will be created to evaluate who to release early."

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