A three-judge federal panel has tentatively ruled that the population of California's severely overcrowded prisons must be reduced by approximately 34,000 to 55,000 inmates to correct constitutionally inadequate health care.
The panel said there is "overwhelming evidence that crowding is the primary cause" of deficient medical and mental health care that falls below constitutional standards.
It also said the evidence from a trial last year is "compelling that there is no relief other than a prisoner release order that will remedy the unconstitutional prison conditions."
The state's 33 adult prisons are currently filled to close to 200 percent of capacity, housing about 156,000 inmates in facilities originally built for 84,000.
The three judges said that capping the population at 120 to 145 percent of capacity within two or three years appeared necessary to provide minimally adequate health care.
The panel said there appear to be several ways the population could be reduced without endangering public safety. These include parole reforms, diverting low-risk prisoners with short sentences into other programs, giving prisoners credit for good behavior and constructing new prisons, the court said.
The panel of U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt was convened to consider claims by inmates in two long-running civil rights lawsuits that a release of prisoners was the only way to bring about adequate health care.
Under a federal law governing prison litigation, an order for release of prisoners can be made only by a three-judge panel and not by a federal trial judge alone.
The tentative ruling is the first time a three-judge panel acting under the Prison Litigation Reform Act has held a trial and issued a prisoner release order. Other cases have ended in settlements before trial.
The judges said they were issuing the 10-page tentative ruling to allow the parties in the case, including state prison officials, "to plan accordingly."
They asked state officials to advise the court how they plan to reduce the population within two or three years. An additional hearing may be held before the court issues its final order, the panel said.
Donald Specter, a lawyer for inmates, said, "We're thrilled. We think the court made the right decision under the law."
Specter said, "The state has known for many years that crowding is out of control and is crippling the prison system."
Matthew Cate, secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said, "We are reviewing the tentative ruling by a panel of federal judges. Obviously, the governor and I strongly disagree with the panel's conclusions and our response will be based on how best to protect the public from a court-ordered release of prisoners."