After decades of legal and political inertia, California now must immediately get down to the tough business of clearing tens of thousands of inmates from its overcrowded prison system.
That was the bottom line in Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling endorsing an unprecedented federal court order forcing state prison officials to slash as many as 34,000 inmates from prisons within the next two years. In a 5-4 decision, the sharply divided high court concluded the order was justified to remedy an overcrowding problem that has plagued the nation's largest prison system since the 1980s.
But how the state will accomplish that -- and whether thousands of prisoners will be freed early -- is still unclear.
The struggle to comply with the order and downsize the bulging prison system will now shift from the courts to the political arena in Sacramento, where Gov. Jerry Brown already has a stalled plan in the Legislature that in theory would shed enough inmates to ease the prison overcrowding.
Brown earlier this year proposed legislation that would shift two large groups of inmates from the state prison system to the county jails -- parole violators who typically spend a few months at a time in state prison, and low-level, nonviolent inmates who are sentenced to state prison for terms of less than three years for anything from drug dealing to embezzlement.
12,000 empty jail beds
But while Brown's plan would ensure that violent inmates continue to serve the same amount of time in custody, it opens the possibility that thousands of nonviolent inmates would be released early because there is not enough room for them in county jails. A survey last year found the 10 largest county jails had 12,000 empty beds.
The Brown administration pounced on the Supreme Court ruling as an opportunity to push the governor's reforms through the Legislature, which must also find a way to provide funding to the counties to deal with the influx of inmates. Republicans have sharply criticized the governor's plan.
With the state's budget tighter than a locked prison cell, the details of solving the prison crisis are expected to remain in flux, but state officials no longer have time on their side.
Matthew Cate, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the governor's so-called "realignment" plan would get the prison system down to a level that would satisfy the court orders, although there are serious questions whether it can be done within the two-year deadline.
"I think it will solve quite a bit of this problem," Cate said.
Jeanne Woodford, Cate's predecessor as state prisons chief, agreed, saying the governor's proposal has "the potential for doing the trick" if counties reform their approach to jail time. But she cautioned that prison officials may need more than two years.
"Is it doable in two years?" said Woodford, an advocate for reform. "It's a massive change in the way we approach criminal justice in California."
The Supreme Court's ruling settles a long-running legal battle triggered by allegations the state's 33 overstuffed prisons are depriving inmates of adequate medical and mental health care. The justices took the rare step of including pictures of prison conditions in their ruling to underscore the need for court intervention.
"This case," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "arises from serious constitutional violations in California's prison system."
The Supreme Court rejected the state's argument that the order goes too far in demanding such a dramatic release of prisoners. California was backed in the case by 18 other states worried about federal judges interfering with state prison systems.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in a scathing dissent, called the order "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history."
The order requires California to reduce its inmate population to about 137 percent of prison capacity, which would call for ridding nearly a quarter of the inmates from prisons. Prison officials have managed to cut the prison population from about 156,000 inmates to about 143,000 in recent years but need to reduce the number to about 109,000 to comply with the court orders.
The Supreme Court found the order was reasonable, given the state's inability to rectify the problem on its own. The justices also upheld the two-year deadline but gave the three judges leeway to offer prison officials more time if it is justified.
Brown's plan to reduce the prison population rests primarily on transferring many low-level offenders to county jails. The California sheriff's association on Monday said the ruling could give Brown's plan a chance to work if it is funded, but sheriffs have expressed mixed feelings about the shift in the past, and jail systems vary county by county in their ability to absorb more inmates.
Greg Munks, San Mateo County's sheriff, called the governor's plan problematic because his jails already are over capacity. But John Hirokawa, Santa Clara County's acting jails chief, said he is "receptive" to the proposal if it is funded properly.
Santa Clara County's jail is nearly 1,000 inmates below capacity, compared with almost 1,500 below in mid-2009.
Cate, meanwhile, insisted Brown's plan would not require the release of prisoners, trying to undercut the argument it poses a threat to public safety. Instead, he said it would cut the inmate population over time by shifting parole violators out of state prisons to county jails and by sending newly convicted low-level offenders directly to county jails.
Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, praised the ruling, saying it would "help prevent prisoners from dying of malpractice and neglect."
But Specter said he would likely balk at any attempt by the state to get more time to solve its prison dilemma.
"They are going to have a hard time convincing me two years isn't enough," he said.
Contact Howard Mintz at 408-286-0236.
Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to solve prison overcrowding would rely in large part on sending low-level, nonviolent offenders to county jails instead of state prisons. To be eligible for the county jail time, inmates would have to meet specific criteria: