Three-judge panel begins deliberation on case that could lead to release of inmates

A three-judge panel that will decide the fate of the California prison system will hold its first hearing in San Francisco Monday afternoon. But as the panel meets for what is expected to be predominantly an organizational meeting, opponents are beginning to coalesce in hopes of boosting public awareness.

A group of district attorneys, county sheriffs, victim’s rights groups and Republican lawmakers are hoping to stop three judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals from imposing a population cap in the state prison system. A cap, they say, could lead to the release of up to 35,000 inmates.

The judges will consider a class-action suit filed on behalf on inmate’s rights groups arguing that the condition of the prison mental-health and health-care systems is so bad that it amounts to a Constitutional violation of rights for prison inmates.

Before Monday’s hearing, critics of the federal intervention will hold a press conference calling on the judges to give the state time to work out its own problems with the prison system.

But one of the judges on the panel has already said the state’s proposed remedy will only make the problem worse.

“New beds will not alleviate this problem but will aggravate it,” said Judge Lawrence Karlton. “Given the almost 12 years that this case has been in its remedial phase and given the Constitutional considerations at stake, the direction in which the state has at present chosen to go by enacting AB 900 simply fails to address in any timely way relief from the overcrowding crisis and its attendant impact.”

Even as opponents prepare to organize in opposition to a population cap, cynicism is taking hold. “The order’s already been written,” says Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, who chairs the select committee on prison construction. “I think as a courtesy, the three-judge panel is going through the motions, but I know the opinion is already written. They’ve already written the order for a cap. It’s all, in my opinion, pro-forma.”

Spitzer says the legal process that will begin in San Francisco Monday is destined to wind up in Washington, D.C.

“This is going to the U.S. Supreme Court. This will not be resolved by a three-judge panel,” says Spitzer.

Democrats have also called on the federal government to give the state some time to implement new prison reforms passed earlier this year. With widespread bipartisan support, the Legislature passed AB 900, which proponents say will lead to the construction of 40,000 new prison beds, in hopes of alleviating the state’s prison overcrowding problem.

With the exception of Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City, the entire Assembly Republican Caucus has filed for intervener status in the case. Among those who are voicing early support for a population cap is the state’s prison-guard union.

CCPOA’s Chuck Alexander said the bill passed by the Legislature “just exacerbates the problem.” Alexander said that his union’s embrace of a population cap is a dramatic shift from where his group was politically just a decade ago, when CCPOA backed stronger sentencing laws that led to the boom in the prison population.

He says his union members are frustrated that the population boom was not followed with the construction of new prisons. As a result, guards are dealing with increasingly dangerous overcrowded prisons. So, as a last resort, the guards are now open to the idea of setting some prisoners free to help ease the overcrowding burden.

“It was a different era then,” Alexander says of the 1990s. “Now, our charge as a union is to do the best job they can for our members.”
Spitzer says that any decision from the three-judge panel is likely to be stayed while the case winds its way up the federal legal ladder. But while calling for more time, even Spitzer says a cap may be necessary if AB 900 does not solve the problem.

“If CDCR cannot implement AB 900, and if it doesn’t alleviate the overcrowding, then [the Califorina Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] is out of arguments,” says Spitzer. “But we need two to three years to implement the changes we’ve just made. If by that time it’s not done, then CDCR is not capable of making the changes needed to make our prisons safer.”

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