A panel of three federal judges on Monday granted Gov. Jerry Brown's request for two more years to reduce the population of California's severely overcrowded prisons. The extension wasn't given for good behavior.

The state's record on prison overcrowding is abysmal. California probably didn't deserve what amounts to a political victory for Brown.

The governor is banking that his new plan to reduce recidivism will work. It better, given that the judges are adding an officer with the power to take action if the state doesn't follow the court order.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 upheld an earlier federal court ruling declaring that conditions in state prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

A correctional Officer Max Nelson makes the rounds checking on inmates in the segregation unit for suicide attempts, at California State Prison,
A correctional Officer Max Nelson makes the rounds checking on inmates in the segregation unit for suicide attempts, at California State Prison, Sacramento, in Folsom, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The courts repeatedly have ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity, but California still is about 5,000 inmates over that limit.

Brown was facing an April deadline before the delay. The governor argued that the only way he could comply would be to release thousands of dangerous inmates or spend $70 million to house them in out-of-state facilities.

In an election year, there is simply no way Brown was going to release any high-risk inmates, especially since California's 65 percent recidivism rate is the highest in the nation. And spending money just to move prisoners around is not a long-term strategy for success.


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The judges' ruling means the governor instead can spend about $80 million on rehabilitation programs designed to help inmates find legitimate employment and break the vicious repeat offender cycle.

A better approach would be to adopt Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's more ambitious plan to give counties additional funding to expand mental health and drug programs for criminal offenders in county jails and state prisons.

Steinberg believes the money will be well spent if it keeps inmates from becoming repeat offenders.

The state also needs to take a look at the sentencing laws that created this problem, beyond the three-strikes law voters weakened last year.

California can't continue to impose such long sentences unless residents are willing to spend the money it takes to house its prisoners. It really is that simple.

Brown and the Legislature have until February 2016 to reduce the state's recidivism rate and establish more reasonable sentencing laws. That is plenty of time to impose real reforms that ensure the state meets the minimum requirements for the health and safety of its prisoners, while still keeping the population safe.