SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A federal judge on Tuesday ordered California officials to prepare for the end of a six-year, court-ordered oversight of the prison system that has cost taxpayers billions of dollars and helped force a shift of lower-level criminals from state prisons to county jails.
U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson cited improving conditions in the prison system in a three-page order that says "the end of the Receivership appears to be in sight."
The ruling marks an important milestone in a process that began nearly six years ago when the judge appointed a receiver to run California's prison medical system after finding that an average of one inmate a week was dying of neglect or malpractice. He cited inmate overcrowding as the leading cause, but said in Tuesday's order that conditions have improved.
He praised the better conditions throughout the system, particularly noted during inspections of medical facilities by the prison system's independent inspector general.
"Significant progress has been made," Henderson wrote, citing the receiver's own report to the federal court last week. "While some critical work remains outstanding — most notably on construction issues — it is clear that many of the goals of the Receivership have been accomplished."
Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statement praising the decision, saying the state has been "working very hard to clean up the mess in the prisons and I appreciate the judicial recognition of our efforts."
Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that brought the lawsuit, thinks it is premature to end the receivership, though he said it is "reasonable to start thinking about it."
Conditions have been improving, but still "are nowhere near adequate" at many of the prison medical facilities, he said. Moreover, the state has yet to finish constructing some of the facilities required by the receiver. Also, the judge has yet to decide what standards the prison system must meet to provide constitutionally adequate care, Specter said.
"I understand the governor really wants to end the receivership," Specter said. "Having a light at the end of the tunnel might even spur them to make more progress or faster progress, to act quicker or sooner."
J. Clark Kelso, who took over as receiver in January 2008, looks forward to participating in the talks with state officials but declined further comment, said his spokeswoman, Nancy Kincaid.
Henderson ordered Kelso, state officials and attorneys representing inmates to report by April 30 on when the receivership should end and whether it should continue some oversight role.
Problems with inmate medical care helped prompt federal judges to require the state to ease prison crowding. That led to a shift that began last year that is sending lower-level inmates from state prisons to county jails.
In a ruling last May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court's authority in ordering California to reduce inmate crowding as a way to improve medical conditions. The federal courts had ordered the state's 33 adult prisons to reduce their total population by 33,000 inmates over a two-year period.
The prison system had an all-time high of 162,268 inmates in 2006.
The receiver's office also was given authority to greatly expand the prison system's medical staff and increase pay significantly.
Henderson said he expects the receiver will continue in a general oversight role, even if the state takes back the authority to run the medical system. That will ensure that care is not diminished in the future. Federal and state judges or their appointed special masters also oversee most other activities of California's penal system, including dental care, care of the mentally ill and disabled, juvenile offenders, and criminals on parole.
The judge asked parties for advice on when the receivership should end, how long an oversight period might last and when the underlying case on the quality of medical care should end.
Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the department "is ready and eager" to begin planning for the end of federal oversight of prison medical care.
Under the receivership, the state has built new medical facilities at several prisons, including San Quentin, where Death Row is located. It currently is building a medical complex in Stockton.
The state doubled the amount of money it spent on inmate health care over five years, to more than $15,000 per inmate annually.
Spending controlled by the receiver increased from $948 million before the receiver was appointed to nearly $2.3 billion by 2008, according to the state Department of Finance. Spending on medical care, pharmaceuticals and transporting and guarding inmates declined to $1.8 billion for the current fiscal year.