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In a matter of days, eleventh hour negotiations over the size of California's prison population and its impact on inmate health care will be over -- with the fate of a decade-plus long fight over prison conditions left again to three federal judges.

It's a debate that took center stage at the state Capitol in 2013 as it appeared the judges had finally run out of patience and were insistent on the early release of perhaps thousands of prisoners. Instead, it now looks as though the saga may peak in the next few weeks -- just as legislators return to work in Sacramento and with a statewide election year slowly starting to take shape.

"I see a prison system that's able to start doing some very positive things as we move into 2014," says Jeff Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Prison officials have been privately meeting for weeks with attorneys representing the inmates whose health care lawsuits triggered federal judges to intervene. Those talks, mediated by a state appellate judge, delayed the federal order of a Dec. 31 deadline for California to lower its prison population to about 112,000 inmates.

That number represents 137.5 percent of the design capacity of California's prisons, the maximum population established by federal judges in 2009 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.

As of Christmas Day, state records (PDF) show the combined inmate population in California's 32 prisons was almost 119,000 -- 145.6 percent of design capacity.

While still above the court-ordered limit, that's a decline of almost 43,000 inmates since 2006.

A key question in the legal fight in 2014 is whether the constitutionality of prison medical and mental health care will continue to depend, as it has for years, on the size of the system-wide inmate population.

State officials, now closer than ever to the court-imposed cap, think it will.

"For the foreseeable future, that is going to be the measuring stick that we have to meet," says CDCR secretary Beard.

But Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office and one of the attorneys representing the plaintiff inmates in the two cases, believes the number was simply the judges' best guess at the time of what would help alleviate the health care problems.

"The population reduction has helped to some degree," he says. "But there's still a great need for improvement."

Specter points to two problems in particular the he sees. First, the inmate population in some prisons remains much higher than the state average; 12 prisons housing men and two housing women each are still above 150 percent of their design capacity.

Second, he argues that medical and mental health care problems persist, even with court-appointed overseers and a major shift by lawmakers of less serious offenders being dealt with on the local level rather than a stint in state prison. That shift, California's realignment program, is largely credited for most of the reduction in the prison population.

"Most of the prisoners that have been transferred to county jails or other jurisdictions do not have serious medical or mental health problems," said Specter.

In September, the federal judges in the case -- U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton, and U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt -- delayed their Dec. 31 deadline for a smaller prison population. Two short delays later, the deadline now stands at Apr. 18.

State and inmate attorneys must wrap up their negotiations by Jan. 10, with the judges weighing in some time after that.

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators approved a plan in September that envisions a 2016 deadline for systemic criminal justice changes to help reduce the state prison population. But if the judges refuse to wait that long, prison officials say they will move thousands of inmates to private prisons both outside and inside California's borders. Secretary Beard says some inmates could also be housed at jails in San Francisco and Alameda counties, each of which have told state officials they have room.

Currently, almost 9,000 inmates are housed in private prisons in three states -- Arizona, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.

"Sending inmates out of state is a necessary evil, but it's not something that's good," says CDCR secretary Beard. "It's not good from a re-entry perspective, and it's not good to send California taxpayer dollars out of state."

But extra time is likely to be opposed by the attorneys representing the plaintiff inmates.

"The state wants more time to get its act together," says attorney Specter. "But our clients are suffering today."

John Myers is News10's political editor. Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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