PD Editorial: Judges give the state a prison break

  • An inmate is escorted from the new mental health treatment unit at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The $24 million treatment center for mentally ill inmates opened on Thursday as state corrections officials used the occasion to push for ending federal oversight of that aspect of prison operations. The 44,000-square-foot building includes rooms where inmates will undergo individual, group and recreational outpatient therapy. It will be used to treat inmates who are seriously mentally ill but are able to function without around-the-clock care. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

California got more than some extra time when a federal court extended a Dec. 31 deadline to reduce its prison population.

The judges gave the state an opportunity.

After two decades, the focus of this marathon legal battle may finally be shifting to a long-term solution.

Gov. Jerry Brown and his three immediate predecessors contested inmate lawsuits alleging inadequate health care and dangerous overcrowding in state prisons. Time and again, they lost.

In 2009, a panel of federal judges concluded that overcrowding was preventing inmates from receiving adequate health care in violation of their constitutional rights.

They ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity, a decision affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices refused to intervene when the Dec. 31 deadline was imposed.

The legal battle is over. What remains is a determination of how the state will comply.

After last-ditch legal appeals failed, Brown proposed to send about 9,600 inmates to private prisons, county jails and out-of-state lockups, spending a big chunk of the state's budget surplus in the process.

Using that approach, the state would hit the mark by Dec. 31. But not for long.

That's where the judges come in.

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