By Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times
August 12, 2012, 5:42 p.m.
SACRAMENTO — California’s progress in relieving its teeming prisons has slowed so much that it probably won’t comply with a court-ordered population reduction, and judges have raised the prospect of letting some inmates out early.
Three federal jurists have given the state until Friday to come up with a schedule for identifying prisoners “unlikely to reoffend or who might otherwise be candidates for early release” and to detail other ways to hasten the emptying of double-bunked cells.
In the interim, the judges have ordered California to “take all steps necessary” to meet their existing deadline for population cuts.
A recent flurry of legal motions that provoked the judges’ Aug. 3 order shines the first light on shortcomings in California’s plan for fixing its prison system — one so overburdened, with healthcare so poor, that the U.S. Supreme Courtsaid incarceration there was tantamount to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
In May 2011, the high court gave California two years to comply with the three judges’ determination that prisons should not be overcrowded by more than 137.5%. State officials concede they are unlikely to reach that target by the June 2013 deadline and have told the judges they intend to ask for a new cap of 145%.
That would mean about 118,000 prisoners, which is about 6,000 more than the court wants, in quarters built for 81,500.
The officials say they can comply with the spirit of the order — improved medical care and humane living conditions — if not the letter.
“Reducing the inmate population is not the goal of the court,” said corrections agency spokesman Bill Sessa. “It is a means to an end, which is providing better healthcare that was compromised by overcrowding.”
He said the goal of improved healthcare would be achieved next year, when the state opens a new 1,700-bed prison hospital in Stockton to house critically ill and long-term-care patients, which will also further reduce crowding.
Since October, Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment program has diverted tens of thousands of low-level felons to county jails and probation programs rather than put them in state lockups. A Times analysis of prison population reports and projections for the last year shows the number of inmates fell faster than analysts predicted but then leveled off.
In October, the prison population was shrinking by more than 4,000 inmates a month. That has now shriveled to fewer than 1,000 and is expected to fall further as many of the remaining low-level offenders leave the system.
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