A panel of federal judges on Wednesday extended California's deadline to cut its prison population until April 18, while ordering that negotiations continue over how best to reduce inmate crowding.
The judges previously moved the deadline to February while a court-appointed mediator works to find a long-term solution with Gov. Jerry Brown's administration and attorneys representing inmates who say crowding leads to conditions so poor that they violate constitutional standards.
The judges ordered that those talks continue until Jan. 10. But their one-paragraph order warns that they plan no further extension in the negotiations "absent extraordinary circumstances.''
"The court is bending over backward to accommodate the state,'' said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office and one of the attorneys representing inmates in the case. "We're anxious to either complete the negotiation process, or if that's not successful, to resume litigation at the earliest possible time.''
With the extension, the state now faces a spring deadline to reduce the population of its major prisons to about 110,000 inmates. Despite recently announced plans to open several publicly and privately operated prisons, the state is still about 4,400 inmates over the population cap set by the courts.
The state has already reduced its prison population by about 25,000 inmates in the past two years, primarily through a law that sends lower-level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons.
Deborah Hoffman, speaking on behalf of the administration and the state corrections department, said officials are encouraged by the extension and will continue their efforts "to build upon California's landmark reforms to our criminal justice system.''
The state has been pushing for a three-year delay in the court-ordered deadline to give rehabilitation programs time to work. A new state law lets the state spend $315 million this fiscal year to house thousands of inmates in private prisons and county jails unless the court postpones its deadline for reducing the prison population.
The judges have ruled that reducing crowding is the best way to improve care for sick and mentally ill inmates, and the U.S. Supreme Court has twice refused to intervene.
Specter said it is important that crowding be quickly reduced because what is now a three month delay in the court's original year-end population reduction deadline is hurting inmates.
"Our clients need to have the court's order enforced as soon as possible because overcrowding remains a serious problem,'' he said.