In court documents just before the stroke of midnight, Gov. Jerry Brown argues that nothing short of the early release of violent criminals would fully meet the 2013 prison population target of federal judges... a mandate which Brown's team says they hope to avoid through a new appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The stark options offered in late Thursday's 40 page document, and additional documents filed by top officials, come in response to a three judge panel's threat last month to hold Brown in contempt of court for his administration's failure to lower California's prison population to about 110,000 inmates -- an order upheld in 2011 by the U.S. Supreme Court. As of last week, the state's prisons held 119,374 inmates (PDF).
The vast majority of the choices suggested aren't actually endorsed by state prison officials, say the court documents; nor are they doable by the governor alone.
They include expanding credits many inmates earn for good behavior, rehabilitation, or educational activities -- thus granting more inmates an early release from prison. That is also an option the Brown administration says it doesn't support.
"These measures pose an undue risk to public safety and do not reflect sound correctional practice," says corrections secretary Jeffrey Beard in his declaration to the federal judges.
Other top corrections officials, in their own declarations, also argue against early releases to lower the prison population to the court's intended level by December 31 -- the deadline set by federal judges.
"The number of inmates who could be released who have serious or violent offenses, including murder, is troubling," says deputy corrections director Michael Stainer in his declaration to the court. "There is insufficient time between now and December 31, 2013 to recruit, hire, and train the number of parole agents necessary to ensure appropriate supervision of this increased parole population. Without appropriate supervision, these offenders pose an increased threat to the public."
The two proposals the Brown administration says it does support, however, are the completion of new prison construction and the expanded use of fire camps, where inmates are trained to assist in wildfire incidents. But neither of these proposals would, per the court filings, seem to hit the magic number of about 9,000 fewer inmates by the end of 2013.
Some of the proposals would focus early release of elderly or sick inmates. The state also suggests the idea of sending more inmates to private, out-of-state prisons.
In most of the ideas outlined in the court documents, state prison officials say that the governor doesn't have the authority to make the changes; in most cases, they say that power lies in the hands of the Legislature. In some cases, they argue that the proposals would even require a change to California's state constitution -- which can only be modified by voters.
The lengthy legal documents also make clear that all of these huge hurdles -- both those of policy and politics -- would have to be cleared relatively soon, in order to give prison officials enough time to implement the changes. August 15 is often referred to as a target date for some of these controversial actions, and all legislative changes would require supermajority votes to create laws, via urgency measures.
State attorneys say the governor will draft proposals for legislative action, including proposals that would amount to early release.
Politically speaking, that's next to impossible. In fact, it's a strong bet that some of the ideas outlined for the court wouldn't even garner a majority vote in one or both houses, let alone a two-thirds level of support.
The ideas mentioned to the judges also include possibly placing more burdens on county jails and local law enforcement, an untenable idea given the political rancor the 2011 realignment plan continues to generate at the state Capitol. But here again, the Brown administration isn't actually calling for shifting felons to county jails, just laying out things that could be done to satisfy the court order.
"Now is absolutely not the time to impose further obligations on already strained counties," write lawyers for the state in the main document filed Thursday night.
It's important to remember that the original lawsuits, filed by inmates more than a decade ago, charged the state with poor and unconstitutional access to health care services -- a situation linked, through the years, to the size of the prison population and prompting court control of those services.
Brown has argued, and even formally asked the court earlier this year to agree, that health care problems have been solved and the inmate population is no longer a threat to adequate care.
"We respect the court's authority to order the list of measures, but we submitted it under protest," said corrections secretary Beard in an emailed statement late Thursday night. "Further population reduction is not needed."
The state's official news release, along with a link to its federal court filing is here.
Expect comment from both the Brown administration, and attorneys representing the inmate plaintiffs, later on Friday.