A special panel of three federal judges, Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Lawrence K. Karlton, of the Eastern District of California, and Thelton E. Henderson of the Northern District of California, issued a tentative ruling yesterday in the mammoth prison conditions litigation known both as Coleman v. Schwarzenegger and Plata v. Schwarzenegger after the lead plaintiffs in two class action prison lawsuits that have wound their way through courts since 1995 and 2002 respectively. The judges announced there readiness to order California to reduce its prison overcrowding from its current status of nearly 200 percent above the design capacity, to a level between 120 and 145 percent of design capacity, and below 100 percent of design capacity for those facilities housing "clinical" populations, presumably those with mental illness or acute health problems (with a more precise target likely to be named in the final ruling).
The court dismissed as unworthy of further discussion the questions of whether current prison overcrowding was preventing the remedying of unconstitutional gaps in the provision of treatment to the mentally ill among the prison population, and general medical care to the full population, or whether there was any current alternative to prisoner release (as defined broadly by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the primary piece of federal statute law governing prison remedies in federal court). Remarkably the state's main argument seems to have been that the Special Master and Receiver appointed by the panel previously are doing such a good job managing the implementation of better mental health and general health services that their work alone constitutes adequate relief short of a prisoner release order. As the tentative ruling notes there is some irony here. "[T]he defendants have opposed the Receiver's work in Plata and are seeking the dissolution of the Receivership."
The main focus of the opinion was on whether this relief could be achieved without an adverse impact to public safety (which the PLRA requires courts to give "substantial weight" to prior to ordering any prisoner release). Drawing on well known researchers on the California prison population like Dr. James Austin,the panel strongly endorsed a combination of parole reform (presumably aimed at reducing parolees being returned to prison for minor violations of their parole conditions), diversion of "low risk" prisoners to other sanctions, and some form of "good time credits" to reduce the sentences on a gradual basis for all California prisoners that perform to a specific standard (like good behavior and active rehabilitative programming where available).