By Sam Stanton
The state won a four-week reprieve today in the court order requiring it to reduce its inmate population by the end of the year, and the three federal judges overseeing the prison overcrowding case ordered the state and inmate attorneys to begin meeting immediately to see if a solution to the years-long problem can be found.
The judges ordered the meetings to be held confidentially in front of a judge and that the judge report back by Oct. 21 with recommendations.
The order falls short of Gov. Jerry Brown's request for a three-year postponement of the deadline, but appears to give both side wiggle room to find a way to reduced chronic overcrowding in the prisons without having to spend millions renting new prison beds in California and out of state.
The judges' order comes one day after Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg sent the panel a five-page letter outlining in detail how critical an extension of time would be to helping California meet the court-ordered reductions in overcrowding.
"As I have previously indicated, California is at a crossroads: we can spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars annually to essentially rent more out-of-state, private prison beds, or we can invest in reducing the need for increased prison capacity through more effective local criminal justice practices and programs," Steinberg wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Bee.
Steinberg and Brown reached agreement earlier this month on a far-reaching plan that appropriates $315 million to find beds for inmates in private prisons in and outside California to avoid having to release inmates into communities to meet the court's order.
The state formally asked the three-judge panel on Sept. 16 to grant a three-year postponement of its Dec. 31 deadline requiring California's prison population to be reduced to 137.5 percent of capacity.
Without a postponement or a way to find more prison beds, the state would have had to resort to releasing inmates, something Brown said he would not do because it would endanger the public.
The deal hammered out between Brown and Steinberg gave the state the ability to avoid that. But Steinberg noted in his letter to the judges that a postponement of the Dec. 31 deadline would allow California to save the money it would spend on renting private and out-of-state beds and allow that money to be focused on rehabilitation programs aimed at reducing recidivism.
The efforts to improve conditions inside the state's 34 adult prisons "represent the greatest reforms in our systems of criminal justice in over 30 years," Steinberg wrote in his letter.
The prisons have a design capacity of about 82,000 inmates but currently house about 118,000, placing the current level at 143.7 percent of capacity.
The order issued today gives the state until Jan. 27 to meet the deadline and instructs the state not to lease additional out-of-state beds until further order by the court.