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California prisons still too crowded, judge rules

California Governor Jerry Brown speaks at the 7th Annual California Hall of Fame induction ceremony at The California Museum in Sacramento,
California Governor Jerry Brown speaks at the 7th Annual California Hall of Fame induction ceremony at The California Museum in Sacramento,

By Sharon Bernstein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A federal judge has rebuffed California Governor Jerry Brown's effort to undo a court order requiring the state to reduce its prison population, saying he did not trust officials to improve conditions for inmates.

Brown, a Democrat, is under political pressure to scale back a program under which state prisoners are sent to local jurisdictions to ease crowding. That move has led to the early release of thousands of non-violent offenders from lower-level county jails as municipalities struggle to make room for them.

California has been under court orders to reduce population in the 33-prison system since 2009, when a panel of federal judges ordered it to relieve the overcrowding that has caused inadequate medical and mental health care.

California must reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity by June 27. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported 119,213 inmates on January 2, just under 150 percent of capacity.

In January, Brown asked U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton to vacate its order to further lower its prison population, saying that California had fixed its overcrowding problem and further releases of prisoners would harm public safety.

"In the years since the court issued the current population cap order, the state has dramatically reduced the prison population, significantly increased capacity through construction, and implemented a myriad of improvements that transformed the medical and mental health care systems," the Brown administration said in court filings.

On Friday, Karlton, whose court is in Sacramento, wrote in a 68-page opinion that the state had not met the goals set by the court order. He expressed skepticism that California, if released from the oversight of the court, would follow through on promises to improve conditions.

"Based on defendants' conduct to date, the court cannot rely on their averments of good faith," Karlton wrote.

He also criticized the administration for failing to provide adequate mental health supports for inmates, citing "systemic failures" in suicide prevention and other care for mentally ill inmates.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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