About 1,000 California inmates could be released before they complete their sentences as Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) administration works to comply with a federal court order to reduce the state prison population by nearly 10,000 inmates, the Los Angeles Times reports (Megerian/St. John, Los Angeles Times, 8/7).
In 2006, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled that federal oversight of the prison system was needed after determining that an average of one inmate per week died as a result of medical malpractice or neglect.
In April, a panel of federal judges rejected Brown's request to end a court-mandated prison population cap. The judges ruled that the cap is necessary to address substandard conditions that have resulted in unconstitutionally poor inmate care.
On May 2, Brown filed a proposal to comply with the population cap.
In June, three federal judges rejected the plan, ordering Brown to release about 9,600 inmates -- or 8% of the inmate population -- by 2014.
The judges said that the state can use any method under its original plan to reduce the inmate population, but they suggested expanding the use of good behavior credits to expedite prisoner releases.
If the state does not comply with the order by the end of the year, officials will have to release inmates based on a list of "low-risk" offenders, according to the judges.
In July, Brown filed a request with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy for a stay of the order. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Brown's request.
Following the ruling, Jeffrey Callison -- spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation -- said the state will continue to prepare a Supreme Court appeal of the initial prisoner release order.
On Monday, Brown's administration announced plans to comply with the order by relying on county jails, community correctional facilities and out-of-state prisons (California Healthline, 8/6).
Officials Weigh Early Release Strategies
While no prisoner releases related to the court order have been scheduled, officials are reviewing discharge rules and identifying potential candidates for early release to help meet the prison population cap, the Times reports.
The state already has developed new criteria for discharging seriously ill inmates, including those with Alzheimer's disease or those who are paralyzed. Previously, only inmates requiring 24-hour care qualified for early release.
However, inmates sentenced to death or life without parole will remain ineligible for release under the new criteria.
In addition, the state in court filings said it is evaluating parole criteria for elderly inmates.
New rules could make prisoners age 60 or older who have served at least 25 years of their sentence eligible for early release, unless they were sentenced to life or life without parole.
Officials also are considering early releases for low-level, nonviolent offenders who are not sex offenders. The state also could expand good behavior credits for such inmates to move up their release date, according to the Times.
About 1,200 prisoners with a less than one year left in their sentences currently would qualify for release under such strategies. Another 500 inmates with more than one year left in their sentences could qualify for early release if such strategies were implemented.
James Austin -- a prison consultant who works with prisoners' attorneys -- said it is unlikely that the state will be able to avoid granting certain inmates early releases by the end of the year. "There's no escaping it now," he said.
Beard also acknowledged that avoiding the early release of prisoners will become more difficult "the closer we get to the end of the year."
However, he said that "[t]here are still some unknowns" and that the state is waiting to determine "what kind of flexibility we have and what kind of capacity we can develop to place people by the end of the year" (Los Angeles Times, 8/7).