By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - The ongoing battle over how to reduce crowding in California's massive, troubled prison system heated up again on Monday, after a panel of federal judges said that court-ordered talks between state officials and lawyers for inmates had produced no results.
Prisons in the most populous U.S. state house about 120,000 inmates, 50 percent more than they were built to hold, but officials have fought for years against a series of court orders demanding a reduction in crowding, citing at various times budget concerns and worries about releasing dangerous criminals early.
On Monday, the judges said they would rule within the next 30 days on whether to grant the state's latest request - for a two-year extension on reducing crowding - or insist that the state meet a deadline in late April or early May.
"This court has repeatedly extended the meet-and-confer process, and by virtue thereof the date for the state's compliance, in hopes that the parties could reach agreement," the judges wrote. "It now appears that no such agreement will be reached."
California prisons have been in the national spotlight for the past year as officials wrestled with crowding and concerns about the state's use of long-term solitary confinement for prisoners with suspected gang ties, which led to a hunger strike.
The crowding has been ruled unconstitutional by the panel as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that the conditions result in inadequate medical and mental health care.
Last summer, the state promised to spend millions on mental health care and anti-recidivism programs for inmates if the judges granted a two-year extension to their order - fought at every turn by California Governor Jerry Brown and his staff - to reduce crowding to just 137.5 percent of capacity by the end of 2013.
At one point, the federal panel threatened to hold Brown personally in contempt of court if he did not fix the problem.
The state has already moved to reduce the crowding by shifting some inmates to county oversight, reopening shuttered facilities and housing some prisoners at private facilities. Although the prisons are at about 150 percent of capacity, that's a considerable reduction over a few years ago, when the facilities were crammed at 200 percent of capacity and inmates slept in bunks stacked in gymnasia and common rooms, as well as regular cells.
An order to reduce crowding immediately could cause unwelcome political ripples for Brown, who is widely expected to run for re-election this year.
His transfer of inmates released on parole to the jurisdiction of the counties ruffled feathers at the local level even as it reduced crowding in state institutions, and continued pressure to reduce the prison population could stir up those tensions again.
In addition, Brown built an assumption that the extension would be granted into his proposed budget for next year, saying it would save $90 million in costs associated with housing inmates at private prisons and county jails.
He said through a spokeswoman Monday that he remained hopeful that the judges would give the state more time.
"We are hopeful the court will recognize that the state has made significant reforms to our criminal justice system and will allow us an extension so we can build upon these landmark reforms," the spokeswoman, Deborah Hoffman, said in an email.
But prisoners rights lawyer Donald Specter, who represents inmates in one of two cases underpinning the overcrowding rulings, said he would oppose granting any extension to the state.
"The overcrowding creates unconstitutional conditions which harm my clients, and the sooner the crowding is reduced the easier it will be for the state to provide adequate health care for the prisoners," Specter said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)