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Judges stand firm on California prison crowding relief plan

A woman sits handcuffed after arriving at the Los Angeles County women's jail in Lynwood, California April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
A woman sits handcuffed after arriving at the Los Angeles County women's jail in Lynwood, California April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) - A federal court on Wednesday refused to back down from an order requiring California to reduce prison overcrowding by the end of the year, a goal that could force the early release of up to 10,000 inmates.

The decision is the latest in a feud between California Governor Jerry Brown and a panel of three judges over how best to relieve crowding and improve medical and mental health treatment in the state's 33 prisons.

The judges - Stephen Reinhardt, Lawrence K. Karlton and Thelton E. Henderson - have twice threatened Brown with contempt of court for refusing to comply with their orders to reduce the state's prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity from just under 150 per cent now.

The matter has already gone up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which backed the panel's demand in 2011.

But Brown has still refused to comply. The governor wants to go back to the Supreme Court to argue that times have changed in the 23 years since the original case was filed and the state should not be held to earlier standards for prison overcrowding.

Moreover, Brown says, the poor mental health and medical care that were at the root of initial concerns about overcrowded conditions have been remedied.

Last month, the judges again ordered Brown to reduce crowding, saying the state would simply have to release some inmates if it could not find other places for them.

Prison officials said that would mean letting 10,000 inmates out early and asked the judges to issue a stay on their order so the department could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, the judges refused.

"Despite our repeated efforts to assist defendants to comply with our population reduction order, they have consistently engaged in conduct designed to frustrate those efforts," the panel wrote. "They have continually sought to delay implementation of the order."

A Brown Administration spokeswoman said on Wednesday the state would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a stay on the order while an appeal was made.

"Our appeal of the three-judge court's unprecedented order to release nearly 10,000 inmates by the end of this year is in progress," said Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections.

The two cases at the heart of the judges' order were filed in 1990 and 2001 over poor mental health and medical care in California correctional facilities. The state has consistently lost appeals of court orders to ease the overcrowding that the courts found to be at the heart of those problems.

Michael Bien, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the 1990 case, said the state should comply with the order instead of continuing to fight it.

"The arguments they raise are the arguments that have been rejected already by the Supreme Court," Bien said. "There's really nothing new. It's time the state moved on."

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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