By DON THOMPSON Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif.—The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide within weeks whether federal judges can order California to reduce the inmate population in its overstuffed prisons, but the state already has taken steps that will limit the consequences if the court rules against it.
Moreover, a new state law would remove even more inmates than the federal courts contemplated. However it rules, the high court still will set a nationwide precedent as it determines the authority of federal judges to intervene in states’ operations of their prison systems.
California operates the nation’s largest state prison system and currently houses 142,600 inmates in its 33 adult prisons. That’s down from a high of 162,268 in 2006, or a decline of 12.1 percent over five years. The state has another 20,000 inmates housed in private prisons in other states, and in firefighting camps and community correctional facilities within California.
The state would have to reduce its inmate population by an additional 33,000—or 23 percent—if the justices uphold a panel of federal judges that found crowding had led to unconstitutionally poor medical and mental health care within the system. The judicial panel, based in San Francisco, ruled in August 2009 that the state’s prisons can hold no more than about 110,000 inmates.
California would meet, and perhaps even exceed, that target if a bill signed earlier this year takes effect. That law would reduce the prison population by about 40,000 inmates by transferring many low-level offenders to county jurisdiction.
“If we get an adverse decision, we’ll be well on our way to reducing our crowding levels to the levels mandated by the courts,” state Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said in an interview.
The catch in the new California law is that it cannot take effect unless it is funded.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, says the money to reimburse counties for taking the 40,000 offenders is contained in his budget plan, which calls for a mix of spending cuts and a renewal of recent tax increases to close what had been a $26.6 billion deficit.
Democratic lawmakers already have taken steps to eliminate much of the deficit, primarily through spending cuts, but a $15.4 billion shortfall remains.
Brown is using the pending Supreme Court decision to pressure Republican lawmakers to support putting the tax extensions before voters in a special election. He wants voters to decide whether to extend for five years increases enacted two years ago in the sales, personal income and vehicle taxes, which would bring in about $9.2 billion a year. All the taxes will expire by June 30.
“We stand under the Sword of Damocles of the United States Supreme Court, which by the middle of June will be rendering a decision which in all probability will demand the release of tens of thousands of people currently housed in our prisons,” Brown said during a Capitol news conference last week. “The only question is, ‘Are we going to handle it properly, with a plan? Or are we just going to react without the money, without the realignment, and in a way that will be ultimately self-defeating?'”
As attorney general, Brown fought the federal intervention.