- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A federal judge in Northern California has ordered the state to let men participate in a prison rehabilitation program aimed at reuniting female inmates with their children.

U.S. District Court Judge Morrison C. England in Sacramento said in an order filed Wednesday that the program violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution and the state had failed to explain why the program should exclude men.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice deferred comment to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. A spokeswoman for the prisons agency did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The judge ruled in the case of William Sassman, an inmate with two daughters and a wife who has been incarcerated since 2011 on a grand theft conviction. He sued in 2014.

Two other men, Michael Berman and Darrell Stapp, filed a separate lawsuit this summer that was then merged with Sassman’s.

The two men have been incarcerated for more than a year in a Soledad, California, facility on grand theft and drug charges. Berman has a wife and daughter in Los Angeles, and Stapp has an elderly mother with knee problems in the Sacramento area.

The men called the program “profoundly unfair.”

California lawmakers approved the program in 2010 as a way to alleviate prison overcrowding and reduce recidivism, believing that low-level offenders could be monitored easily outside of prison without risk to the public and that better bonding could keep parents and children out of prison in the future.

The law was written to include women and primary caregivers of both genders, but corrections officials started with women only when they began accepting applications in late 2011. The aim was to add men sometime in the future. But in 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown approved a budget bill restricting the program to women only.

There is no record of who requested the change and why. Corrections officials and the author of the original legislation, Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Canada Flintridge, cannot explain it.

Applicants must be low-risk, low-level, non-violent offenders with clean behavior records. Women are monitored by electronic bracelet as they take classes to improve their parenting, manage anger or kick addiction.

Debra Slone, an attorney and sister of one of the inmates, greeted the judge’s order with relief.

“That’s really great that everybody’s being treated equally,” Slone said. “It will give a lot of people, including my brother, I guess, the chance to get their lives in order.”

In its responses to the lawsuit, the Justice Department argued that the program had always been designed for female inmates, whose motivation and criminal behavior are different from men.

Gay Grunfeld, a San Francisco attorney whose firm represents the inmates, called that nonsense and said that the agency was promoting the program as one of family reunification yet denying men with families who also desire reunification.

The state has approved 530 women for the program since it launched.


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