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Crowded California prisons fall short in mental health care: judge

By Sharon Bernstein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A federal judge has rebuffed California Governor Jerry Brown's effort to ease U.S. oversight of mental health services in the state's overcrowded prisons, saying he did not trust officials to improve conditions for inmates.

Brown, a Democrat, is under political pressure to scale back a program under which state prisoners are sent to local jurisdictions to ease crowding. That move has led to the early release of thousands of non-violent offenders from lower-level county jails as municipalities struggle to make room for them.

California has been under court orders to reduce population in the 33-prison system since 2009, when a panel of federal judges ordered it to relieve the overcrowding that has caused inadequate medical and mental health care.

California must reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity by June 27. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported 119,213 inmates on January 2, just under 150 percent of capacity.

In January, Brown asked a panel of federal judges to vacate its order to further lower its prison population, saying that California had fixed its overcrowding problem and further releases of prisoners would harm public safety.

"In the years since the court issued the current population cap order, the state has dramatically reduced the prison population, significantly increased capacity through construction, and implemented a myriad of improvements that transformed the medical and mental health care systems," the Brown administration said in court filings.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, whose court is in Sacramento, denied in a 68-page opinion the administration's request to be released from federal oversight of an order to improve mental health care for inmates.

A further ruling, on the state's assertion that it should not be required to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity by June, is expected in the coming months.

"Overcrowding in California's prison system was the primary cause of the state's failure to remedy ongoing constitutional violations in the delivery of mental health care to prison inmates," Karlton wrote.

He added that, despite arguments that the system had improved, there were not enough beds to house mentally ill inmates, nor enough staff members to treat them.

He expressed skepticism that California, if released from the oversight of the court, would follow through on promises to improve conditions.

"Based on defendants' conduct to date, the court cannot rely on their averments of good faith," Karlton wrote.

He also criticized the administration for failing to provide adequate mental health supports for inmates, citing "systemic failures" in suicide prevention and other care for mentally ill inmates.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

(This story was corrected to show ruling addresses mental health services for inmates in overcrowded prisons rather than overcrowding itself and adds comment from judge to show link between the two issues in headline, paragraphs 1, 7-9)

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