A panel of federal judges has rebuffed a bid to order a mass release of California prison inmates in an effort to reduce the danger posed by the coronavirus.
The three-judge panel did not rule out the possibility that lawyers for inmates could eventually win a court-ordered reduction in the state’s prison population of roughly 120,000 to allow more social distancing, especially for elderly prisoners and those with pre-existing medical conditions. Proponents of slashing California’s prison rolls took their request to three judges who, in 2009, ordered the state not to exceed 137.5% of the intended capacity of its prisons.
However, in a ruling issued Saturday evening, Judge Kim Wardlaw of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court Judges Kimberly Mueller and Jon Tigar said those who want that cap lowered because of the virus first need to go to individual judges and give the state an opportunity to make adjustments to the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“Any constitutional violation in Defendants’ current response to the COVID-19 crisis is different, in both nature and degree, from the violations underlying the 2009 population cap order,” the court’s decision said. “That order was never intended to prepare Defendants to confront this unprecedented pandemic. Nor could it have, given that the entire world was unprepared for the onslaught of the COVID-19 virus.”
As of Saturday, there were 13 confirmed cases of the virus in California prisons, but doctors have said the outbreak could rampage through jails and prisons because of the tight quarters as well as communal meals, showering and other activities.
The new court ruling noted that California officials are carrying out a plan to cut the prison population by 6,500 to mitigate the threat from the virus. And the judges encouraged the state officials to do more. “We urge them to leave no stone unturned,” the judges wrote.
The decision also said the judges took “no satisfaction” in turning aside — at least for now — what they called an “important question” of whether California’s actions to address the pandemic were sufficient to meet constitutional standards. The 2009 cap was ordered to address chronic failures to provide adequate medical care and mental health services to prisoners.
Mueller wrote separately on Saturday to say she disagreed with her colleagues that the virus outbreak was an “entirely distinct” issue from the health care concerns that fueled the earlier litigation. She noted that experts involved in the case more than a decade ago discussed the dangers of contagious disease among an overcrowded prison population.
“I am inclined to think this court retains broad equitable powers that might permit some reconsideration of the current cap in light of the unprecedented exigent circumstances here,” she wrote.
However, Mueller ultimately agreed with her colleagues that the law requires lawyers for the prisoners to approach individual District Court judges for relief first and also allows the state some period to make changes before releases are ordered.
An attorney for the prisoners, Don Specter, said lawyers would refile the request as the judges suggested “no later than early this week.”
“We’re obviously disappointed because every day that goes by increases the risk of a catastrophe in the state prison system,” Specter told POLITICO early Sunday. “However, the ruling was purely procedural and the court provided a road map for obtaining a ruling on the merits.”
A spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Dana Simas had little comment on the court decision. “The order speaks for itself,” she said.
Simas stressed that California prisons were taking various measures to address the threat of the virus, including halting intake from county jails, expediting paroles and moving inmates out of dorm-style housing where feasible.
“CDCR has taken significant steps to address the safety and well-being of inmates and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
Under legislation passed by Congress in 1996, releases of prisoners due to prison conditions can be ordered only by a three-judge panel composed of one appeals court judge and two District Court judges.
Mueller and Tigar are appointees of President Barack Obama. Wardlaw was appointed by President Bill Clinton.