Lawyers for Gov. Jerry Brown scored a rare legal victory, albeit a small one, in the state’s long-running battle with federal judges over prison overcrowding when a panel of three federal judges agreed to a brief postponement of a looming Dec. 31 deadline for the state. The panel issued a wide-ranging order calling for state officials and inmate attorneys to meet and seek a long term resolution of the problem.
The judges postponed until Jan. 27 their previous order that the state release approximately 8,000 prisoners by Dec. 31 or face harsh sanctions for contempt of court.
The postponement is seen by some as an indication from the court of a possible willingness to compromise in an effort to find a permanent solution to the problem, but falls far short of the three-year postponement requested by lawyers for Brown in a Sept. 16 filing with the court. Brown has said a potential three-year extension would give the state enough time to invest in evidence-based programming intended to bring down the state’s recidivism rate and break the cycle of inmates returning to prison again and again.
The order also instructed inmate attorneys to immediately begin discussions with the state’s attorneys regarding the merits of Brown’s request for a threeyear postponement in order to explore practical alternatives that would avoid the early release of thousands of felons. The panel of judges appointed Justice Peter J. Siggins of the 1st District Court of Appeal to monitor the informal discussions and report back to the court by Oct. 21 with his recommendations.
In an apparent effort to thwart the state’s efforts to address the problem through short-term fixes, the judges’ order also addressed Brown’s latest proposed last-ditch plan to address the problem by shipping thousands of inmates to private facilities in other states. Their order forbids the state from entering into “any contracts or other arrangement to lease additional capacity in out-of-state facilities or otherwise increase the number of inmates who are housed in out-of-state facilities.”
Shifting thousands of California inmates to private lockups in prisons often thousands of miles away from their families was an expensive option exercised under an “emergency decree” by Brown’s predecessor, former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The number of California’s displaced felons housed in such states as Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arizona and Mississippi eventually reached 9,000.
In an effort to cut costs from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s annual $9.1 billion budget, Brown earlier this year cancelled several ongoing contracts the state had made with two of the largest companies in the rapidly growing private prison industry, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA} and the Geo Group, and soon began shipping hundreds of the inmates it has housed in other states back to the already heavily overpopulated prisons within California.
Since assuming the governor’s office, Brown has continued the battle to resist the ongoing federal control over healthcare in the state’s massive 32-prison system. After a high-profile battle in federal court, watched closely by states’ rights advocates, a three-judge special panel convened to hear the case ruled that healthcare in the state’s prisons, whose inmate populations at times exceeded 200 percent of their designed capacity, failed to meet constitutional standards and had resulted in an extraordinarily high number of deaths among inmates.
The court took its reasoning a step further and found that overcrowding itself was the root cause as the healthcare system had become hopelessly overburdened. The three judges removed control of the prison system from the state and appointed a medical receiver to oversee a rapid modernization of the prison healthcare system at each of the state’s sprawling prisons. A modernization that has seen the receiver order the expenditure of well over $1 billion of California’s money on things such as new prison hospitals and increased and better paid staffing for prison clinics.
The judges ordered the state to reduce the inmate population to a figure not to exceed 137.5 percent of the prison system’s designed capacity, a figure that the state has called arbitrary and meaningless. The current inmate population is at 146.9 percent of capacity, or about 8,000 inmates over the cap imposed by the judges.
Meanwhile, attorneys for Brown have continued to fight and lose, suffering setback after setback all the way up to, and including, an appeal to the nation’s highest court. Brown’s string of adverse rulings in the courts had continued virtually uninterrupted until the recent ruling by the three-judge panel extending the Dec. deadline until Jan. 27.
To avoid further inflaming the situation, the state has temporarily halted the return of the out-of-state inmates as it tries to develop a plan for housing them in private prisons throughout California and avoid adding them to the over-crowded prisons.
In the past month, CCA and the Geo Group have each announced the signing of new contracts with the state for housing thousands of inmates, though it still isn’t clear whether inmates covered under those new contracts will be housed in privately owned facilities within the state or in private out-of-state facilities where the per-inmate cost is significantly less than in California with its high cost of living.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, or so the saying goes. As the third-term governor gears up for a previously declared run at a fourth term in the governor’s chair, he met recently in Sacramento with legislators from the state’s oft-maligned minority caucus and came away smiling with new allies in support of his proposal for a $315 million temporary fix to the prisons problem; a bill which would earmark the funds specifically for prison-expansion purposes.
The Republican lawmakers are historically tightfisted pertaining to issues requiring the expenditure of taxpayer dollars, but they were all smiles in announcing their party’s support for a new idea and plan proposed by an old, longtime adversary.
California’s Republican Party has long been a vocal supporter of expanding the number of prisons to
accommodate the rapid growth in the state’s prison population. Each of California’s 32 prisons has an annual operating budget of about $50 million.
Brown said if the money is approved, the state will “expeditiously” begin leasing privately owned and operated prison cells both in and out of the state, as well as leasing unused jail space in cities up and down the state. Brown has also announced plans to reopen the state-financed Community Correctional Facilities located in the cities of Taft, Shafter, Delano and Coalinga.
Each of the 500+ bed facilities was shuttered several years ago when Brown’s public safety realignment plan (AB 109) rerouted the low-level inmates who formerly served their sentences in the minimum security CCFs back to jails in the communities from which they were sentenced. Reopening each of the facilities would also provide a much-needed economic boost to each of the host communities.
Coalinga shuttered its Claremont Facility two years ago when a contract with the state to house inmates there was terminated by the state in yet another round of cost cutting moves. The facility had provided 90 jobs with an annual payroll of $5 million for members of the surrounding community. Now the city is stuck with an estimated annual tab of $200,000 simply to maintain the closed facility.
How soon the facilities will be reopened is anybody’s guess, said state officials. If the court grants a further extension for the state, state officials will move quickly to reopen the local facilities in order to house lower-level inmates returning from out-of-state.
On the other hand, if California receives no further extensions from the court, state officials say much of the $315 million will be used to pull out all the stops and shuffle inmates quickly to out-of-state prisons in order to avoid having to release an additional 8,000 inmates to meet the court’s demands for a population which does not exceed 137.5 percent of capacity.
While the governor refuses to entertain thoughts of any plan which has as a component even the slightest of early release possibilities many of the state’s most populated counties have been forced to wholeheartedly embrace early releases from their own jails which have been overrun with realignment inmates. Lawbreakers who are sentenced in Los Angeles County can expect to do no more than about 40 percent of their sentences before being kicked loose.
Brown recently announced that plans to close the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco have been put on hold indefinitely. That dilapidated facility, made famous in the Eagles’ song “Hotel California,” was built up over time around a once-opulent former resort/spa and hotel seized for back taxes by the federal government and leased to the state to use as a drug treatment facility. Eagles drummer, singer and songwriter Don Henley served an enforced stint at the state-run rehab in the late 60’s.
Los Angeles County officials have announced a three-year deal with the state to send 528 of the county’s low-level inmates to state owned and operated fire camps. In return, the county will pay the state $27 million over the life of the three-year deal.
Tulare County officials are moving forward with plans to construct a new $80 million jail in Porterville, as well as an additional new facility, The South County Daytime Reporting Center, also to be located in Porterville that will handle the growing number of south county residents sentenced to serve their days in the custody of the sheriff’s department while returning home each evening to spend their nights with families. Currently the program’s participants from the south county area must make a daily drive to Visalia in order to participate in the Daytime Reporting program.
“We’re certainly pouring some long overdue attention into the long-neglected south county area,” said sheriff’s Captain Keith Douglass, who heads up the Detention Division for the sheriff’s dept. “A lot of our resources and attention are being invested right here in this area.”
According to Douglass, the Daytime Reporting Center will be constructed with some of the $8 million in realignment funds the sheriff’s department has received from Sacramento for the 2013-2014 year. The center will include classrooms as well, allowing those in the program a chance to attend alcohol, substance abuse or continuing education courses while serving their sentences. Douglass expects to have the program up and operational by mid to late January.
The ever changing winds of AB 109 policy and rapidly evolving directional changes have taught Tulare County officials, as well as their counterparts throughout the state, much about waiting patiently while hoping for the best when dealing with issues related to AB 109.
All eyes have turned to the federal appeals court from which a decision is expected to come possibly as soon as the end of the month.
Douglass said the county is applying for an additional up to $40 million in state funds to replace some of the aging buildings at the old road campsite. In addition to constructing transitional housing units for prisoners in the jail’s substance abuse program, Douglass said a mix of classrooms and programming areas will allow prisoners to educate and better themselves during their stay in the jail.