Federal Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton held an important hearing on June 27 that will impact the lives of every prisoner, parolee in California and their families.
It was a joint hearing of the Coleman and Plata cases, held at 500 I Street, Sacramento.
The premise was that California prisons are catering for more prisoners than they can accommodate and in addition, they cannot provide even basic healthcare.
The judges were asked to rule on three judge courts – a system whereby more than one judge would be needed to approve early release of prisoners. If formed, a three-judge court would hold hearings and make decisions on prisoner release orders. Appeals against decisions made by a three-judge court would be directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
If a prison cap is set, it could lead to the early release of tons of thousands of prisoners in California, because there are thousands too many in the system now. A lawyer for the plaintiffs suggested that if 8,000 prisoners were set for early release, within a short period of time, 6,000 new prisoners could take their place because of the State’s inadequate medical system and non-existent rehabilitation.
The plaintiffs said prisoners are not screened on entry and they cannot get timely access to specialists. It has been estimated that a prisoner dies needlessly every six days.
The judges stopped lawyers on both sides, several times, to ask questions, to make and clarify points. They were concerned that they were being asked to agree to approve a three-judge court, with the premise that such a court could fix the problems of the prison system. The sentencing guidelines are seen as a partial cause of prison overcrowding and Judges Henderson and Karlton questioned whether a three-judge court could change the sentencing guidelines.
Judge Henderson posed the question that what if the three-judge court makes a determination, requesting the State to provide a plan and the State provides an inadequate plan? The State could stall proceedings for a very long time.
The State of California argues that State Assembly Bill AB900 signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in May 2007 alleviates overcrowding by providing more prisons. The State does not want to institute an early release program, saying it can improve the delivery of mental and other health services.
Plaintiff lawyers stated that recidivism and parole violations are a big problem that keep prisons full and because the state does not have sufficient rehabilitation, there will always be a large and increasing prison population.
Surprisingly, the CCPOA (prison guards association) stood on the plaintiffs’ side, requesting caps on the prison population.
Speaking for the State, the Defense lawyer quoted from the new report of the court-appointed Receiver of the state’s prison medical care system, pointing out what he said were major improvements. His point was to overcome the stated points that the prison system had not only been mismanaged for many years, it was still being mismanaged. Later, a defense lawyer noted that while there had been improvements, there were at least four serious issues that had not been addressed.
In addition, Robert Sillen, the receiver, estimated that it would take between five to ten years to bring prison standards up to constitutional levels. An equal amount of time would be needed to hand the system back to the State.
Activists opposed to the State’s prison expansion showed up in force, filling the courtroom, concerned that if prison expansion is allowed, then there will be no real reforms. Every seat in the courtroom was taken, including over 100 members of UNION (United for No Injustice Oppression or Neglect). This group played musical chairs, allowing members waiting outside the chance to witness proceedings for at least a short time.
Both Judges are near retirement age. The activists wanted to show the judges that they care about prisoners and the reforms currently on the table, which will have a permanent impact on the lives of prisoners and their families. By showing up in force, they hope to convince the judges to not retire.
Some of the main problems in the prison system that affect prisoners and their families are overcrowding, medical neglect, abuse of the mentally ill and harsh sentencing laws that cause overflow in the prisons.
The judges closed the hearing and a ruling is expected later.