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Supreme Court refuses to hear California prison overcrowding case

By Jennifer Chaussee

(Reuters) - The Supreme Court declined on Monday to hear an appeal of a court order that requires California to ensure that disabled inmates who are housed in county jails to ease crowding in state prisons receive appropriate accommodations.

The court’s denial highlighted tensions between the most populous U.S. state and federal courts about crowding and conditions in California's troubled prison system.

The state has been under court orders to reduce its prison population since 2009 and has sought to comply partly by funneling some non-violent offenders to county jurisdiction.

In 2012, a U.S. District Court judge ordered state officials to notify the counties when inmates have disabilities entitling them to accommodations under federal law while in jail. The state must also take complaints from prisoners who say they are not getting assistance they need.

“They were essentially refusing to pass that on to counties,” said Lisa Ells, part of the legal team representing disabled inmates. “So the counties would receive an inmate and have no idea if that person was disabled.”

In her 2012 order, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken required the state to track the roughly 2,000 disabled inmates in its custody and report to county jails when someone was transferred to county jurisdiction who was entitled to accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Those accommodations can include wheelchairs, tapping canes for the blind or accessible beds and toilets. Once the state makes the county aware of an inmate’s needs, it is the county’s legal obligation to provide the necessary accommodations.

After the order was issued, the state complied, but also submitted a series of appeals aimed at overturning the requirement.

In court documents, California Governor Jerry Brown argued that the larger issue was whether the federal government had the right to tell the state which roles it should assign to local governments.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the order in 2013, saying that shuffling inmates to county jails did not exempt the state from its responsibility to ensure they receive disability accommodations. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.

Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said on Monday the state would continue to provide the information to the counties.  

(Reporting by Jennifer Chaussee in Berkeley, Calif.; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Peter Cooney)

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