Federal Court Orders California To Release Prisoners By Year’s End

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D)

With the state facing an overcrowding crisis that has its prisons at more than 150 percent of capacity, a panel of federal judges ordered California on Thursday to find a way to release prisoners by the end of the year.

In the opinion, the judges cite California’s “repeated failure to take the necessary steps to remedy the constitutional violations in its prison system.” In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the overcrowded conditions in state prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment and upheld an order requiring the state to reduce the prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity. Most recently, the same federal court rejected a request in April from California Gov. Jerry Brown to end court supervision of the prison program, threatening to hold Brown in contempt if he did not comply with their order.

On Thursday, they were similarly urgent about the importance of reaching the 137.5 percent threshold by the end of the year: “This Court wishes to make it perfectly clear what this means: Defendants have no excuse for failing to meet the 137.5% requirement on December 31, 2013,” the court wrote. “No matter what implementation challenges defendants face, no matter what unexpected misfortunes arise, defendants shall reduce the prison population to 137.5% by December 31, 2013, even if that is achieved solely through the release of prisoners from the Low-Risk List.”

The Low-Risk List stems from the April ruling, in which the court instructed California to develop a system for identifying prisoners who are candidates for early release. The decision also requires the state to submit updates on their progress to the court every two weeks. After the U.S. Supreme Court order, Brown made some early progress in reducing prison overcrowding from nearly 200 percent of capacity. But he has since missed subsequent court deadlines, declaring in January that “the prison emergency is over,” in spite of data documenting continued medical neglect. Now, new reports show that the prison population is beginning to creep back up again.

The most recent court order — on behalf of both federal court districts and the appeals court overseeing this case — was the sternest yet. But that hasn’t stopped Brown from remaining defiant and vowing to fight the order: “The state will seek an immediate stay of this unprecedented order to release almost 10,000 inmates by the end of this year,” Brown said.

Joseph Diebold is an intern with ThinkProgress.