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California gets two more years to solve prison overcrowding

Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento, near Folsom, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

A panel of federal judges on Monday granted California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) two more years to reduce chronic prison overcrowding that has cost the state billions of dollars.

The ruling, issued by three judges overseeing the state’s efforts to ease the overcrowding, gives California until February 2016 to achieve their goals. But, the judges said, the state has to make elderly inmates and those with serious illnesses eligible for parole immediately.

Brown had requested the delay in exchange for creating a commission to recommend reforms of the state’s sentencing laws. The commission would be tasked with recommending ways to reduce the state’s prison population, although Brown hasn’t taken public steps toward appointing members.

“It is encouraging that the Three-Judge Court has agreed to a two-year extension. The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer,” Brown said in a statement released Monday.

But the judges want to see concrete steps taking place. The ruling requires California to reduce its prison population by 1,000 by the end of June.

Brown’s proposed budget, which he released last month, would make about 2,200 elderly prisoners eligible for parole. The judges said Brown must go ahead with those plans, which would expand parole to inmates who have spent at least 25 years in prison and who are over 60 years old. Repeat felons convicted of non-violent crimes would be eligible for sentence reductions, and would be considered for parole after serving half their terms.

At the moment, the state houses more than 117,000 inmates in facilities built for just 81,600 residents. Another 12,200 are incarcerated in private facilities in California and three other states, the Los Angeles Times reported.

A class-action lawsuit filed by 33,000 prisoners alleges the state doesn’t adequately treat inmates with mental illness. But Republicans have been critical of Brown’s efforts to appease the judges, given that almost any solution means releasing more prisoners early.

The panel’s ruling wasn’t completely unexpected. Brown’s proposed budget, which he rolled out amidst negotiations between the state and the judges, assumed the court would grant a two-year reprieve. Brown’s budget proposes an additional $500 million for new prison facilities this year alone, and $200 million for programs aimed at reducing recidivism rates for former offenders.