BY DON THOMPSON The Associated Press
SACRAMENTO -- Reducing California's inmate population further to meet a federal order would endanger public safety and require the state to ignore its own sentencing laws, Gov. Jerry Brown warned Tuesday as he challenged judges to reject those options. After years of changes, the Democratic governor said California would have to grant shorter sentences to inmates convicted of violent or serious felonies to meet the court's mandate.
He also called for restoring the state's authority over its prison system, vowing to take that battle to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
The prison population cap was imposed in 2009 after federal judges blamed crowding for dismal conditions that violated inmates' constitutional rights and resulted in the death of an average of one inmate a week due to neglect or poor care.
The judges gave the state until June to reduce the population of California's 33 adult prisons by about 33,000 inmates, to a total of 110,000 inmates.
"Under protest we're offering some options for further release. But make no mistake about it: Releasing prisoners who were convicted of serious and dangerous crimes is not in the public interest," Brown said at a Capitol news conference where he called for the judges to rescind the population cap order.
California already is sending thousands of less-serious offenders to local jails instead of state prisons under a 14-month-old state law designed to reduce crowding and prison spending. But the state is still set to fall short of the court-imposed population cap.
"It's not a smart idea or a sound idea to add further to the burden of the counties," Brown said.
Brown's administration said in court documents filed overnight Monday that it could comply with the court's current population cap only if the federal court waives numerous state laws and "orders the outright early release of inmates serving prison terms for serious and violent felonies."
The plan includes granting early release credits to "second strike" inmates who have serious prior convictions, the state said. State sentencing laws would also have to be changed, and inmates who would normally serve nine months or less in state prison would have to spend their time in county jails.
The state also could lower the threshold for sending inmates to firefighting camps, expand work furlough, restitution centers and alternative custody programs, and keep more inmates in private prisons in other states.
Attorneys representing inmates' welfare said the state could adopt those changes without endangering the public, while saving money.
"Incarceration is the most expensive of all the options for taking care of people in the criminal justice system," said Michael Bien, one of the lead attorneys for inmates.
Attorneys also argued in their court filing that, while conditions have improved, inmates still are needlessly dying of neglect and mentally ill inmates go untreated.
Brown's reasoning also drew swift criticism from reform groups.
"Rather than implement the kinds of sentencing reforms that would significantly reduce the number of people needlessly behind bars in California, Gov. Brown has instead committed to business as usual," said Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice and drug policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of California.
Spending more money on prisons means less money for other needs such as public schools, he said in an email.
Brown argued that the conditions that led to the court oversight -- extremely poor medical and mental health care for inmates -- have been solved and prisoners now receive care exceeding constitutional levels.
Brown ended a 2006 emergency proclamation by former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that let the state send thousands of inmates to private prisons in other states. Brown's move cleared the way for them to be returned to California starting in July.
"California is a powerful state. We can run our own prisons. And by God, let those judges give us our prisons back. We'll run them right," Brown said.