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Prison leader seeks delay in court order
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — California will have no choice but to move 4,000 more inmates to private prisons in other states if federal judges refuse to postpone a court-ordered population cap, state Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said Wednesday.

The state faces an April 18 deadline to reduce overcrowding in its 33 adult prisons. The judges have found reducing overcrowding to be the key step in improving inmate medical and mental health care, but Gov. Jerry Brown is seeking a three-year delay.

Beard said such a delay would give the state time to build cells for nearly 3,500 additional inmates. That would bring the state close to meeting the federal population cap while avoiding the need to send more inmates elsewhere.

It also would give time for rehabilitation programs to work, he said. Those programs are designed to reduce the number of convicts who commit new crimes after their release and then get sent back to prison.

"We really don't want to do more out-of-state either, so we're hopeful we get our extension," Beard said in an interview. "But if we don't get that, then our only alternative will be to increase the out-of-state (transfers)."

A panel of three federal judges has set a Friday deadline for an end to negotiations between Brown's administration and attorneys representing inmates.

The judges already postponed by nearly four months their original Dec. 31 deadline for the state to reduce its inmate population to about 110,000 inmates. Beard said that gave the state crucial time to begin operating what used to be a private prison in the Mojave Desert, open a medical hospital in Stockton and send additional inmates to five community correctional facilities within California.

Without those moves, the state would be looking at sending up to 7,000 inmates out of state instead of 4,000, he said.

California already houses roughly 8,900 inmates in Corrections Corporation of America prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The Department of Finance estimates it costs the state $29,500 a year for each inmate housed out of state, although that amount is less than the average per-inmate cost within California because mostly younger and healthier prisoners are selected for the transfers.

The judges last year ordered the state not to move more inmates out of state, but Beard said he expects the judges would lift that ban when negotiations end this week.

An additional delay would give the state time to open an expansion of the Stockton medical facility this spring to house about 1,100 mentally ill inmates. The state last week also detailed plans to build three medium-security housing units over the next 2 1/2 years at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego and Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, 40 miles southeast of Sacramento, to hold a combined 2,376 inmates. The combined cost of all the new housing is $700 million.

Beard would not say if the budget Brown will propose Friday calls for building additional prison cells.

California already has reduced its prison population by about 25,000 inmates during the last two years, mainly through the governor's criminal justice realignment plan that is sending lower-level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons.

Yet the inmate population keeps climbing, said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office and one of the attorneys representing inmates in the long-running federal case.

"It's continuing to increase, so any building would be spending billions of dollars for only a temporary fix," he said. "It also shows that realignment was only a temporary fix, as well."

Brown and lawmakers of both political parties have been fighting previous court rulings that say the state can safely release more than 4,000 inmates by increasing good-behavior credits. The judges have previously said the state also could release elderly and medically incapacitated inmates without endangering the public.

"Other states and jurisdictions use lots of other methods other than increasing capacity, and there's no reason California can't do the same thing," Specter said.