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California gets two more years to reduce prison overcrowding

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California won two additional years to reduce overcrowding in its massive prison system under an order issued on Monday by a panel of federal judges, in the latest twist in a decades-long dispute over prison conditions and medical care for inmates.

"The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer," Democratic Governor Jerry Brown said in a statement.

The court-appointed panel, which oversees prison crowding cases in California, said it was granting the extension to February 2016 because the state had promised to develop comprehensive reforms to its prison system, which houses about 120,000 inmates in facilities designed to hold about 80,000.

The extension was a victory for Brown, who has resisted complying with previous orders to reduce crowding, arguing they were unnecessary and could result in the inappropriate release of dangerous inmates.

The judges said they would appoint a compliance officer to oversee implementation of reforms, and they ordered Brown not to appeal the compliance officer's orders for at least two years.

The state has been under court orders to reduce inmate numbers since 2009, when the same panel ordered it to relieve overcrowding that several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have said was to blame for inadequate medical and mental-health care.

Under the order, California must reduce its prison population to 143 percent of capacity by June 30, 2014, to 141.5 percent of capacity by February 28, 2015, and to 137.5 percent of capacity, or roughly 110,000 inmates, by February 28, 2016.

California prisons have been in the spotlight for the past year as officials wrestled with crowding and concerns about the use of long-term solitary confinement for prisoners with suspected gang ties, which led to a hunger strike last year.

Reforms the state must implement include a system of credits for good behavior and it must develop alternative incarceration proposals for women inmates. It must also develop a new parole system for inmates over age 60 who have served 25 years or more.

California must submit monthly progress reports. If crowding is not reduced according to the court's timeline, the compliance officer could order the state to release inmates into society, whether or not they are up for parole.

Inmates chosen for release must not be seen as likely to commit violent crimes, and may not be chosen from among those condemned to death or serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, the judges said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Leslie Adler, Toni Reinhold)

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