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Federal courts give California more time to ease prison crowding

January 29, 2013 |  5:20 pm

Three federal judges on Tuesday agreed to give California an additional six months to reduce prison crowding to contested levels.

The U.S. District Courts' order that moves the deadline from June to December also demands California divulge whether it intends to file a motion to cease federal oversight of its prison healthcare system. The state in early January filed such an action to end oversight of the care given to mentally ill inmates, and Gov. Jerry Brown had vowed to seek a similar end to healthcare oversight as well. In the meantime, the judges put California’s motion to dismiss prison population caps altogether on hold.

Last week, one of those judges also ordered the state to produce details of its plans to return some 9,000 prisoners now housed in private prisons out of state, and to tell the court where it intends to house them.

California contends it no longer needs to meet court-ordered population caps in order to provide adequate care to inmates. In multiple orders, the judges have insisted the state reduce prison crowding to 37.5% above capacity, or to about 110,000 inmates. California is currently at nearly 150% of capacity.

Lawyers for inmates in the class-action lawsuits complain California's bid to rid itself of federal oversight came without warning. California last fall blocked efforts by plaintiffs to gather information on how the state was planning for prison population changes, saying such fact-finding was premature. Inmate lawyers have told judges they now are hard-pressed to conduct discovery and gather evidence in the three months allowed under federal law.

"They started a war basically. It was a surprise attack," said Don Specter, lead attorney for the Prison Law Office. The Berkeley firm is handling a 12-year-old inmate class action against the state over prison medical care.

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-- Paige St. John in Sacramento

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