SACRAMENTO — A panel of federal judges Monday gave California two more years to cut its prison population to a level originally ordered in 2009, a move that once again gives the state more breathing room to comply, but also establishes a non-negotiable deadline.
The order from the three-judge panel delayed an April deadline to reduce the prison population to about 112,000 inmates. California remains more than 5,000 inmates over a limit set by the courts, even though the state has built more prison space and used some private cells.
Under Monday's order, the state has until Feb. 28, 2016, to reduce the inmate population in its 34 adult prisons. The order requires the number to be reduced to 112,164 and bars the state from sending inmates to out-of-state prisons to get to that level.
The order essentially adopts a proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown's administration that promised the judges the state would not seek further delays or court appeals if an extension was granted.
The order comes from a three-judge court consisting of 9th U.S. Circuit Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt, Judge Thelton E. Henderson of the San Francisco-based Northern District of California, and Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of the Sacramento-based Eastern District of California. The panel found in 2009 that overcrowding in California's adult prisons has pulled the quality of medical and mental health care for inmates well below constitutional standards.
The three judges acknowledged they were "reluctant" to grant yet another extension of an order originally issued in August 2009.
But they added that promises from the state not to further appeal a case that has twice been to the U. S. Supreme Court will help achieve the "durable solution" to overcrowding that has harmed the state's ability to provide a level of medical and mental health care to inmates that is not "cruel and unusual."
"This should bring an end to defendants' continual appeals and requests for modifications of this Court's orders," the judges wrote.
The order is a win for Brown, who is expected to seek re-election and already is facing criticism over his "realignment" program that shifted responsibility for nonviolent, low-level offenders from prisons to county jails.
In January 2013, Brown declared that the state had done enough to reduce its inmate population and asked the court to return oversight of the state's prisons to California, which the judges rejected.
On Monday, the governor indicated he was pleased with the decision. "The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer," Brown said in a statement.
The order also is a victory for state Senate Democrats who championed the idea last summer of restricting prison expansion in favor of sentencing reform and enhanced rehabilitation programs to reduce the number of inmates, something Brown initially opposed.
But the order is a setback for attorneys for the state's mentally and medically ill inmates, who have argued that immediate population reductions are needed to combat high suicide rates, deaths from lax treatment, and related chronic staffing shortages in the prisons' medical and mental health treatment units.
"We're disappointed that the court didn't order the state to comply with the Supreme Court's order more quickly," said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, which has been in the forefront of the fight to improve the lot of inmates.
Specter, whose staff and co-counsel had won a string of legal victories over the state until Monday, said no decision had been made yet on whether an appeal will be filed. Any appeal from the three-judge court goes directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The judges said the reductions to be achieved over the next two years can come from immediately increasing good time credits for nonviolent, second-strike offenders and minimum-custody inmates, expanding parole for medically incapacitated inmates, creating new rules to allow for parole hearings for inmates 60 and older who have served at least 25 years, and from other means.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.