By Don Thompson
SACRAMENTO — California is housing thousands of inmates out of state and sentencing thousands more to county jails instead of prison, but the draw-down in population is still not enough for the federal courts.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration faced a midnight Thursday deadline to detail how it will reduce the inmate population even further. California needs to shed another 9,300 state inmates to reach a court-ordered population cap by the end of the year.
The governor could be cited with contempt of court if judges believe he is trying to dodge their long-standing order, which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Greatly reducing the state prison population is seen as the most effective way to improve medical and mental health care for inmates. Current treatment has been ruled unconstitutional. Yet the governor has said he cannot reduce the population in the state’s 33 adult prisons any more without endangering public safety.
In addition to filing its plan with the court, the Brown administration also plans to seek a delay while appealing the ruling on overcrowding.
“I’m working every day to try to figure out how to take this case, which we’re losing now, to get in front of the U.S. Supreme Court so we don’t have to let out those 10,000 people.” Brown told a crime victims rally last week, explaining he wants the high court to reconsider its previous decision.
The state must reduce the population in its 33 adult prisons to about 110,000 inmates by year’s end.
The population already has been reduced by about 25,000 inmates under a two-year-old law that is sending felons convicted of what are deemed to be non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual offenses to county jails instead of state prisons.
Brown argues that most of the less serious offenders already have been filtered out of the state prison system. He also says the state can no longer afford to provide “gold plate” prisons at the expense of schools and other social services.
The federal judges said they would hold the governor personally accountable if he keeps ignoring their orders.
They ruled that the state can reduce the prison population by about another 8 percent without increasing crime. Absent a stay of the order, Brown will have to begin moving immediately. Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said the administration was concentrating on alternatives outlined in previous court filings, including:
* Granting more early release credits to inmates, potentially including second-strike inmates who have serious prior convictions.
* Releasing elderly and medically incapacitated inmates who are deemed unlikely to commit new crimes.
* Requiring that felons convicted of drug possession, petty theft, second-degree burglary, vehicle theft and forgery serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons.
* Increasing the use of drug treatment centers.
* Paying to house more inmates at private prisons within California.
Some of the options would likely be opposed by state lawmakers, although the federal judges could waive state laws if they said that was necessary to achieve the inmate reduction.
“They could provide increased good-time credits and modestly shorten the terms of people without any effect on public safety at all,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which filed a lawsuit over prison crowding.
Complying with the court order also could slow Brown’s plan to bring home about 8,400 inmates who are being housed in private prisons in three other states at an annual cost of about $300 million.