The following information is from the 184-page ruling released by the three-judge panel on Aug. 4, 2009. The panel consists of U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento and Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals.
The ruling outlines the judges’ intentions as determined by the evidence presented at a trial which commenced on Nov. 18, 2008 and concluded Dec. 19, 2008. Fifty witnesses testified during the trial.
The number of early releases anticipated by the judges, (46,000 as stated in the ruling), is based upon the official California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation population figure of in-state inmates as of Aug. 27, 2008. That number was 156,352 prisoners.
The court noted that California’s prisons are operating at essentially 200.2 percent of design capacity, and that two of California’s 12 inmate reception centers are currently operating over 300 percent of capacity. The court’s ruling states that the prisons’ population must be reduced to no more than 137.5 percent of capacity, and perhaps even less than that figure as safety dictates.
California’s 33 adult prisons were designed to hold 79,828 male and female prisoners. Three of the 33 prisons are womens’ facilities. Federal standards for overcrowding are 130 percent.
The ruling does not affect the state’s numerous forestry camps, community correctional facilities or out-of-state facilities, only the 33 adult prisons in-state.
The court noted that state officials have at no time denied that the prisons are critically overcrowded, or that the quality of health care in the prisons is at an unconstitutional level. The state’s contention at trial was to deny that the overcrowding was the “primary” cause for the poor level of health care. In order for the court to order early releases, the law requires that overcrowding must be identified as the “primary” cause of the constitutional violations. The judges ruled that this was, indeed, the court’s finding.
California’s prison population has increased 750 percent since the mid-70’s due to determinate sentencing, mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act, under which the trial was held, requires that a release order must be a remedy of last resort, and have no detrimental effect upon public safety.
The judges noted that California has no immediate prison construction plans and thus lacks the means to build its way out of the overcrowding dilemma in a reasonable period of time.
The judges pointed out that four former prison administrators testified as expert witnesses on behalf of the inmate plaintiffs, three of whom had never before testified in any court on behalf of inmates. Two of these prison administration experts were not paid for their expert testimony. The experts all agreed that crowding affects every aspect of a prison’s ability to operate effectively.
Former S.Q. Prison warden and CDCR director Jeanne Woodford testified extensively on behalf of the plaintiffs and repeatedly condemned the overcrowding and the level of health care. “Two officers to supervise 200 is grossly inadequate,” Woodford testified, noting that the practice is common at S.Q. and most other CDCR facilities.
Testimony during the trial established that at least one inmate was dying unnecessarily each week as a direct result of poor quality health care, or, in some cases, a complete lack of medical attention.
California also has an extraordinarily high suicide rate attributed in large part to a lack of mental health care and/or intervention. In 2006 (the last year for which figures were available) 25.1 inmates per 100,000 were dying as compared to a national average of 14 per 100,000.
Only one expert witness testified for the state, and the court noted that this witness wrote his report before visiting a single prison in California. The court noted there was “….no credible evidence presented by the defendants,” and characterized the defendants’ witness as “unreliable.”
The court blasted the state’s plans for transferring inmates out-of-state as woefully inadequate in scope and size, and questioned the potential adverse effects such moves have on the inmates.
Expert testimony established that California DOES NOT incarcerate felons at an unusually high rate, and the average sentence served in California is lower than the national average. The problem lies in the fact that the state has one of the nation’s highest return-to-prison rates. Experts also testified that there is no lessening of recidivism rate associated with length of stay behind bars.
NO WORK OR REHAB
Experts for both sides supported expansion of “Good Time” credits. In addition, the court suggested that the state could explore enhancing program participation credits, extensive parole reforms, sentencing reforms and increasing viable rehabilitative programming for inmates.
Testimony in the trial established that for the previous year, 2007, fully 50 percent of exiting inmates had no work assignment or rehabilitative program assignment.
The records reflect that 134,000 inmates are released annually from California’s prisons, while 70,000 parole violators are returned to prison each year. Of this total, 17,000 are technical violators meaning that they have committed no new crime.
“The evidence,” stated the court, “is clear and convincing, indeed overwhelmingly per-suasive. We do not find that overcrowding is the only cause, but simply that it is the primary one.”