SACRAMENTO — Declaring that California’s long-running prison crisis is over, Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday challenged a federal court order to reduce the inmate population, saying the state has done all it can to relieve overcrowding and improve health care.
Meeting further demands by the courts, he said, would require ignoring state sentencing laws and would put the public at risk by releasing violent offenders.
As a result, Brown urged the judges to end court oversight of inmate medical and mental health care, and vowed to press his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
“There’s no question that there were big problems in California prisons,” the Democratic governor said at a Capitol news conference. “After decades of work, the job is now complete.”
Attorneys representing inmates disputed his claim, asserting that inmates are still needlessly dying of neglect, and mentally ill inmates still go untreated — even as conditions have improved.
Such dismal conditions prompted mentally ill inmates to sue the state in 1991; sick inmates to sue in 2001; and a panel of federal judges to order the state to reduce the population of its 33 adult prisons by about 33,000 inmates by June.
The 2009 order was upheld by the nation’s high court in 2011.
The state won’t meet that deadline, despite sending thousands of less-serious offenders to local jails under a 14-month-old state law designed to reduce crowding and prison spending. The change has reduced California’s inmate population so much that Texas now has more inmates, even though that state has about 9 million fewer residents than California.
Corrections officials calculate that as many as 2,800 third-strike, career criminals could be released after California voters approved Proposition 36 in November.
Previously, state law required sentences of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of a third felony. The recent initiative retroactively changed the law to require the third strike to be a violent or serious felony.
Brown argued the state can’t do more without endangering public safety, and shouldn’t have to comply with an arbitrary cap.
His administration said in court documents filed overnight Monday that it could comply with the court’s current population cap only if the court waives numerous state laws and “orders the outright early release of inmates serving prison terms for serious and violent felonies.”
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 documents state.
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 said the state could adopt those changes without endangering the public, while saving money. Spending more on prisons means less money for other needs such as public schools, said Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice and drug policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of California.
“Make no mistake about it: Releasing prisoners who were convicted of serious and dangerous crimes is not in the public interest,” Brown said.
The federal judges who issued the order previously said they were not willing to consider lifting the population cap or delay the state’s deadline for meeting it beyond December.
Inmates now receive better care in a “gold plate” prison system than they do on the street, Brown argued, after the state spent billions of scarce dollars to build new prisons and new mental and medical health facilities, and to hire hundreds of new employees at salaries that often outpace what is available in the private sector.
A federal judge is already moving slowly to end a court-appointed receiver’s control of prison medical care because of improved conditions, Brown noted.
Brown has 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.