Brown to appeal to Supreme Court over prisoner release

Legal News Line Feb. 10, 2009, 9:52am

Jerry Brown

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) - California Attorney General Jerry Brown promised to appeal a tentative order by a federal panel of judges that could lead to the release of up to one-third of the state's prisoners in an attempt to avert a potential safety hazard.

Brown called the action yet another federal intrusion into the state's prison system.

"This order ... is a blunt instrument that does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, or the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed," Brown said in a statement released on Monday.

According to published reports, the three judge panel including U.S. District Court Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt ruled against the state in an ongoing lawsuit brought by inmates to protest the medical and mental healthcare throughout the prison systems.

Brown said he would appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court.

"The court's tentative ruling is not constitutionally justified. Therefore, the state will appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court when the final order is issued," he said.

The panel dismissed arguments from the state that a massive release of prisoners would threaten public safety. The court said the release of as many as 57,000 prisoners over a two-year period could correct overcrowding that has played a role in 34 prisoners dying because of inadequate prison health care.

According to Donald Specter, an attorney for the prisoners, the prison system was designed to hold about 84,000 inmates. The current population tops 150,000. The panel said they planned to order the state to cut down to 120 to 145 percent of capacity within two to three years.

Henderson has battled the state for the past several months, consistently ruling on the side of the federal receiver, Clark Kelso, he appointed to oversee the prison system.

Henderson appointed Kelso after a 2002 class-action lawsuit, Plata v. Schwarzenegger, determined California inmates were receiving inadequate care that amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Kelso was supposed to be given $250 million last year to begin an $8 billion revamping of the prisons medical care, which included the construction of seven new prison health care facilities - seven million square feet of construction - in addition to renovations at each of the 33 existing state prisons.

When California refused to make the payment, Kelso took the state to court, including asking for contempt charges against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Controller John Chiang.

Brown entered the fray, seeking to block the payment in court. He recently asked the court to terminate the receivership.

In an opinion article published last week, Brown wrote, "the prison health czar believes he is wholly immune for the harsh realities of the state budget." He called Kelso's plan "wildly excessive" and far too expensive to operate annually.

"If California had all the money in the world, perhaps we could consider this," Brown wrote. "But programs for schoolchildren and health care for seniors are on the chopping block - in addition to many state programs. This massive plan simply doesn't square with the belt-tightening taking place."

Kelso said his plans have been mischaracterized by Brown's campaign in the court of public opinion.

"I don't believe it's a boondoggle. I don't believe it's a gold-plated treatment," he said.

He accused Brown of jumping into the fight simply for political reasons as he prepares to launch a bid for governor in 2010. Without the funds to build new healthcare facilities, Kelso said he'd be forced to drop any treatment care for the mentally ill, an assignment he took on "as an accommodation to the governor" and focus only on improving medical treatment for the physically ill, as required under the federal receivership.

Following the panel's ruling, Brown said the federal receiver and the federal courts have failed to see the significant improvements made by the state in running one of the nation's largest prison systems.

"There is no doubt that there is room for improvement," Brown said. "But significant progress has been made and is continuing to be made at a cost of billions."

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