By Sharon Bernstein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A panel of three federal judges has roundly rejected California Governor Jerry Brown's contention that his state's prisons are no longer overcrowded, and ordered the state to continue to reduce its inmate population.
The judges, in an opinion issued on Thursday, denied the state's request to be released from a court-imposed cap that limits California's ability to hold more than roughly a third more prisoners than its facilities were built to house.
They also demanded that the state develop a detailed plan to carry out its order, due in three weeks, and in a strongly worded statement reminded Brown that he must comply with the court's orders.
"Specifically, the rule is applicable to Governor Brown, as well as the lowliest citizen," the judges wrote.
They added that Brown's assertion that prison crowding was no longer inhibiting the delivery of effective health services to inmates, would "not constitute an excuse for his failure to comply with the orders of this Court."
California has been under court orders to reduce population in the 33-prison system since 2009, when the same judicial panel ordered it to relieve the overcrowding that has caused inadequate medical and mental health care.
In January, Brown asked the judges to vacate their order to further lower the prison population, saying that California had fixed its overcrowding problem and further releases of prisoners would harm public safety.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported 119,213 inmates on January 2, just under 150 percent of capacity but above a 137.5 percent target.
THREAT OF CONTEMPT
The three jurists - Stephen Reinhardt, Lawrence K. Karlton and Thelton E. Henderson - reaffirmed an earlier ruling giving the state a six-month extension on its deadline for easing crowding to December 31, 2013.
But they said they expected their ruling to be respected: "If defendants do not take all steps necessary to comply...they will without further delay be subject to findings of contempt."
The issue has become a political football for Brown, partly because reducing the population in state prisons has meant that local jurisdictions have had to host some convicts in county jails who previously would have been sent to state prisons.
In addition, numerous parolees convicted of non-violent offenses are now being supervised at the local level.
Lawyers for inmates who had sued the state over poor medical care resulting from the crowded conditions welcomed the ruling, saying the state had been dragging its feet in developing a plan to ease conditions.
"Care is still lousy and crowding is still the primary reason," said Ernest Galvan, an attorney in the case.
Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the state had spent more than $1 billion reducing overcrowding and improving medical care in its prisons.
"Since 2006, the inmate population in the state's 33 prisons has been reduced by more than 43,000," Hoffman told Reuters in an email. "Any further reduction of the prison population is unnecessary and unsafe."
The court's order grows out of two cases filed against the state, one in 1990 and the other in 2001. In one, lawyers for inmates argued that medical care in California prisons was so poor that it was unconstitutional. In the other, attorneys contended that mental health care was similarly under par.
Several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have agreed, finding overcrowding to be the root of the problem.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Gevirtz)