California Inmate Reduction Puts Brown in Bind

California Governor Jerry Brown faces added pressure to complete his budget plan after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an order today to ease prison overcrowding by taking 37,000 inmates out of the system.

Brown in January already proposed transferring responsibility for 40,000 “low-level” offenders and parole violators from prisons to county jails, as part of a $5.6 billion effort to shift some state services to the local level. He offered the proposal in preparation for the ruling.

The most-populous U.S. state runs the nation’s largest correctional system, with about 163,000 prisoners. Its prisons are at 175 percent of capacity, according to the California Corrections and Rehabilitation Department. The state, confronting a $9.6 billion budget deficit, didn’t dispute that the prisons were overcrowded; it argued that it needed more time to address problems.

“We must now secure full and constitutionally guaranteed funding to put into effect all the realignment provisions,” Brown said in a statement today. “As we work to carry out the court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety.”

To reimburse counties for added expenses under the realignment plan, Brown has proposed extending a 1 percentage- point increase in the sales tax and a 0.5 percentage-point boost in vehicle license fees due to expire July 1. Republican lawmakers have opposed Brown’s request to put those extensions up for a referendum.

‘Sword of Damocles’

“We stand under the sword of Damocles of the U.S. Supreme Court,” the 73-year-old Democrat said at a press conference after signing the prison realignment plan in April. “The only question is how are we going to handle it? Do we just react, without the money, without the realignment, in a manner that will be self-defeating?”

The justices, who voted 5-4, said the order would remedy the constitutionally inadequate level of medical and mental- health care inmates get.

“This extensive and ongoing constitutional violation requires a remedy, and a remedy will not be achieved without a reduction in overcrowding,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

The case was pressed by prisoners and the union representing guards who argued that overcrowding led to disease and violence.

‘Serious Risk’

“This is an example of legislating from the bench at its worst,” Connie Conway, the Assembly’s Republican leader, said in statement today. “As a result of this reckless and irresponsible decision, innocent Californians could be at serious risk of becoming victims of crime.”

Matthew Cate, who heads the corrections department, told reporters May 16 that the system would consider releasing prisoners on parole without supervision if the court ruling was announced before Brown could get funding for the realignment.

“It’s those really hard decisions we’re trying to avoid,” Cate said.

More than 15,500 California prisoners are in other providers’ facilities under contract, including some in the states of Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma, according to statistics on the department’s website.

The case is Brown v. Plata, 09-1233.

To contact the reporters on this story: Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at

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