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California meets federal judges' goal to cap prison population 1 year early

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SACRAMENTO, California — California reached a court-ordered target to reduce the number of inmates in its crowded prisons on Thursday, more than a year ahead of the deadline set by federal judges.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had until February 2016 to reduce the population of the state's 34 adult prisons to 137.5 percent of their design capacity. The state now has an institutional population of 113,463 inmates, slightly below the judges' target.

That is down from an all-time high of 162,804 inmates in 2006, when the prisons held more than twice as many inmates as they were designed to house. Some inmates slept in bunks stacked three high in gymnasiums, dayrooms and other public areas.

"We're clearly making progress, but much work remains," department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in an email.

The challenge now is to keep the population below the level established in court orders that the U.S. Supreme Court has backed, said Don Specter, director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office.

"Wow. Well, that's quite a milestone," said Specter, one of the attorneys who sued to force the state to reduce the inmate population to improve conditions for inmates.

He noted that the prison population has been projected to gradually rise, though that was before voters approved Proposition 47 in November. That ballot measure lowers the penalties for certain drug and property crimes and has led to the release of more than 2,000 inmates so far. The department projects more than 3,200 additional inmates could be released.

The state also met the target in part by keeping 8,800 inmates in private prisons in other states, but it wants to eventually return them to California.

"They're still having trouble running the prisons in a lawful way at this level, and it's costing the public a lot of money to run the prisons at this level," Specter said. The population could be further reduced without affecting public safety, he said.

But state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said the state already is suffering the effects of a major criminal justice realignment backed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 that has led to tens of thousands of lower-level offenders being kept in county jails instead of state prisons.

"This threshold has been met at the expense of our families' safety and security," Nielsen said in a statement.

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