SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Jerry Brown said Thursday that problems remain in California's prison system, even as he argues that conditions have improved so much that the state should take over control from the federal courts.
During a speech in Washington, D.C., Brown called the system a mess, "although far less of a mess than it ever was before" because of changes the state has made to comply with federal court orders enforced most recently by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices last week refused to interfere with a previous lower court order requiring California to further reduce the population of the state's prisons to improve conditions as part of a long-running lawsuit over inmate medical care.
Brown said he knows more needs to be done because a federal judicial panel threatened him with contempt if his administration did not meet the court's demand to reduce the prison system by an additional 9,600 inmates.
"The federal courts have a gun at my head, and if we don't, they'll throw me in the can," he said in a speech to the Center for American Progress conference.
The prison population has been reduced by more than 25,000 during the last two years, mostly because of a state law pushed by Brown that is sending felons convicted of lesser crimes to local jails instead of state penitentiaries.
His administration is in negotiations with a court-appointed mediator over a February 2014 deadline to further reduce the prison population. Brown is asking for a three-year extension to allow rehabilitation programs to work, as an alternative to moving thousands of inmates to private prisons in other states.
"Reducing the number of felons in prison is not one of those things you get up and beat your chest about," said the Democratic governor, who is expected to seek re-election next year.
He said, laughing, that the move doesn't make for a good campaign slogan: "If I'm elected, you'll have thousands of felons in your neighborhood."
Last year, half the reduction of the nation's prison population came from California, Brown said, although the state accounts for 10 percent of the nation's prison population.
Brown is continuing to challenge the lower court. On Thursday, the administration filed notice with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that it will appeal an order temporarily prohibiting the state from signing new contracts to house inmates in other states.
A state law enacted last month relies on the out-of-state beds as a last-ditch alternative to releasing about 4,400 inmates before they complete their full sentences.