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The most liberal judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has been appointed to join two district judges on a specially-created panel, to consider capping California’s 173,000-inmate population as a way of improving prison medical care. In hearings that may become the first of their kind in the nation under a 1995 law, Circuit Chief Judge Mary Schroeder named Judge Stephen Reinhardt and U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton to form a special three-judge court. The panel would have sweeping powers to bring constitutionally deficient medical care into compliance with the law if they determine that overcrowding is contributing to shoddy medical and mental health care for 173,000 inmates who have been crammed into makeshift bunks in gyms and cafeterias the state’s 33 prisons designed to house 100,000 inmates. If the special three-judge court finds overcrowding contributes to the prison medical crisis, it could clear the way for early release of some inmates or delayed incarceration of others. President Jimmy Carter appointed Reinhardt, known as the “warhorse of the left,” in 1980. Both Henderson and Karlton have for years overseen two separate class action cases in an attempt to reform medical care in the nation’s largest state prison system, costing Californians $7.4 billion a year. Henderson ordered a receiver to take over health programs last year but those actions do not affect overcrowding. In October 2006 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in California prisons and moved to ship several thousand inmates to out-of-state prisons willing to house them. Some 400 inmate volunteers have been sent to prisons in Arizona and Tennessee. In November, lawyers for the prison inmates in the class actions sought the prison population caps. Henderson and Karlton asked for the three-judge court last week. They were adhering to terms of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, which curtailed the ability of a single federal judge to cap prison populations. The law requires a special three-judge court to oversee the need for prisoner releases if less intrusive measures have failed and the state had a reasonable time to comply with reform orders. Karlton has issued 77 orders since 1996 in he effort to reform mental health screening and appropriate care to inmates.

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