With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature coming up empty on relieving prison overcrowding, inmate rights lawyers Monday petitioned federal courts in Sacramento and San Francisco to impose a population cap as the fastest and surest way to stem the system's burgeoning crisis.
The attorneys insisted that their motion for the population limit, if it is approved, would not amount to an early release program. But a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation characterized it as such and said the prison agency will contest the action.
Coming in the middle of a program to ship inmates to private, out-of-state prisons, the attorneys said the legal actions amounted to a last resort on their part to force the state to comply with a federal court order to fix medical care in California's 33 prisons and to meet its mandate in another class- action case to better treat and classify mentally ill inmates.
The only way to get right with the courts on mental health and medical care, the lawyers said in interviews and in court papers, is to reduce the prison population.
"My clients are suffering and dying under these conditions," said Michael Bien, the plaintiffs' lawyer in the mental health suit. "We can't wait any longer." His motion said 37 inmates committed suicide in California prisons this year.
Corrections spokesman Bill Sessa said that problems in mental health and medical delivery in the prisons go way beyond population. He acknowledged, however, that prison overcrowding "has a number of detrimental consequences" and "that's why we've been taking so many steps to relieve it," including the out-of-state transfer program in which 80 inmates have already been shipped to Tennessee. The state is seeking more than 2,200 such transfers, with the next ones scheduled to take place as soon as next week.
One thing the administration is not interested in is lawsuits that propose population caps, and Sessa said he fully expects the state's attorneys to contest the motions sought by the inmate rights lawyers.
"I'm sure we will," Sessa said. "We've never endorsed the early release of criminals."
The motions filed in the courtrooms of U.S. District Judges Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento and Thelton Henderson in San Francisco are asking for the appointment of a three-judge panel that would take up the issue of the population cap under the federal Prison Litigation and Reform Act. The motions are expected to be heard on Dec. 11.
Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, called the population cap a "temporary emergency measure." He said the most likely reduction strategy would focus on cutting down the number of technical parole violators being reincarcerated. Increasing good behavior credits and shortening prison terms by a month on the least serious offenders scheduled for release are other potential means for the state to get under a cap, he said.
"Until such time that we roll up our sleeves and reform the parole and sentencing systems, this might return a modicum of safety to prisons and the people who have to work in them," said Krisberg, a court-appointed expert on correctional issues who has studied population caps.
Schwarzenegger sought to propel prison overcrowding to the top of the Legislature's agenda over the summer when he called for a special session to tackle the issue. But his proposals to stem the problem -- including more prison construction -- were first heavily modified and then outright rejected.
The governor then issued a proclamation declaring a prison overcrowding emergency on Oct. 4, saying there were 4,313 inmate assaults and batteries in the prisons last year, including 1,671 on the staff. The proclamation set the table for his out-of-state transfer plan.
In their papers filed Monday, the plaintiffs' lawyers did not spell out a firm population cap figure. California's prison population, stood at 173,462 as of midnight Nov. 1 -- and, since Oct. 25, has officially exceeded 200 percent of capacity in the 33 institutions.
One of their motions, however, quoted from a 2004 report issued by the Schwarzenegger- appointed California Independent Review Panel that said the "maximum safe and reasonable capacity" for male prisoners in the state is 137,764.
With 161,652 men in the system as of Nov. 1, the panel's figures would appear to suggest a reduction of about 24,000 male inmates is in order.
But Donald Specter, the head of the Prison Law Office, which filed the suit that led to the appointment last year of a receiver to oversee the prison health care system, said the motions are not designed to act as an early- release mechanism.
"The main culprit in the equation is the parole violators," Specter said. "That's the thing you could do the quickest, safest and easiest, without even a change of law."
Monday's filings gained support from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, whose vice president, Chuck Alexander, said "we can't get the mission accomplished" with the current population and that the plaintiffs' actions would mean "relief for my members."
State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, a longtime legislative prison oversight specialist, said the population cap "affords us an immediate and real opportunity to evaluate who belongs in the prison system and to jump-start parole reform."
About the writer: The Bee's Andy Furillo can be reached at (916) 321-1141 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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