Dispute over California prison crowding to go to trial

A court-appointed referee tells federal judges that state officials and others have failed to settle the case of poor inmate healthcare.
By Tim Reiterman, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 28, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO — Attempts to settle a case on California’s crowded prisons have reached an impasse over the issue of how many inmates the lockups should hold.

The failure paves the way for a trial Nov. 17 that could lead a three-judge panel to order mass releases.

On May 30, federal judges gave the parties in the complex litigation a 30-day extension to strike a deal. After hearing a court-appointed referee’s report Friday on the stalled talks, the judges said they would go ahead with a trial to determine whether overcrowding is the primary cause of unconstitutionally poor medical and mental healthcare in the state’s 33 prisons.

Referee Elwood Lui, who presided over negotiations among state officials, prisoners’ rights attorneys and other parties, said, “We were not able to bring the ball across the goal line.”

Andrea Hoch, the governor’s legal affairs secretary, said: “Agreement on a population level is key because all other settlement terms flow from that one item.”

Lui and Hoch expressed hope that an accord still could be reached before the trial.

Currently, 158,000 inmates are housed in California’s adult prisons. Liu proposed setting the population at 158% of designed capacity — which under existing conditions would translate to 132,500 people — by Sept. 15, 2012.

To help reduce the gap, parole violators and prisoners with short sentences would be sent to county-run programs instead of state penitentiaries.

But in a report unsealed Friday, Liu said state officials and plaintiffs in two civil rights suits could not agree on a population level, benchmarks for achieving such a goal or a completion date for a population reduction.

Republican lawmakers and 20 district attorneys, who intervened in the case, questioned whether overcrowding is the primary cause of inadequate healthcare. They opposed population caps and the diversion of low-risk inmates, citing public safety concerns.

They also argued that overcrowding would be addressed through Assembly Bill 900, which passed last year and authorized $7.4 billion in bonds to add 53,000 beds, and through a court-appointed receiver who has sought $7 billion in borrowing for 10,000 additional medical beds.

“With all the promising work in progress designed to alleviate the conditions that gave rise to the possible need for a prisoner release order . . . a settlement . . . does not need a prison population cap in order to succeed at this time,” wrote William Mitchell, Riverside County assistant district attorney and lead counsel for the intervening district attorneys.

Steven Kaufhold, a lawyer for the Republican legislators, said in an interview, “These are large problems and are not going to be solved in a month or by November. . . . Turning [prisoners] loose is not necessarily going to help medical or mental health.”

The judges expressed skepticism about the ability of legislative action or the court-appointed receiver in charge of prison healthcare to solve the long-standing care problems any time soon.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson said the receiver estimated it would take three to five years to get the system in order.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton said: “We’re told there are people dying [unnecessarily] every day.”

Don Specter of the Prison Law Office, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said talks broke off Monday.

“Even if we do resume talks,” he said, “the trial will go ahead unless we settle the case.”

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