The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s argument that a lower court's prisoner reduction order threatens public safety.
The state had sought a stay of a lower court's ruling, which the Supreme Court denied. Unless the High Court agrees a formal appeal from the state, California will have to reduce its prison population by roughly 9,000 inmates by year's end.
The justices gave no reason for the denial. Justice Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying they would have granted the stay.
The Secretary of California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Jeffrey Beard, responded with a written statement, saying the state will pursue its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court “so that the merits of the case can be considered without delay.”
Courts have repeatedly ordered California to reduce overcrowding in the prisons because of poor medical care for inmates.
This isn't the first time the High Court has taken up the case. In 2011, the justices upheld the prison population cap ordered by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court.
The state maintains that conditions in the prisons have vastly improved since then.
Friday's decision forces state officials to move forward with a plan to reduce overcrowding that they recently outlined in court papers.
The state relies in part on finding other places to house thousands of California prisoners. They've renewed contracts with private out-of-state prisons that currently hold about 8,900 California inmates. They’re also negotiating to lease 1,600 jail beds in Los Angeles and Alameda Counties.
State officials are considering ways to speed up the release of thousands more inmates through increased good-time credits or through paroling more elderly or medically-incapacitated inmates.
The District Court has also ordered the state to develop a system for identifying prisoners unlikely to re-offend who can be released early, should other plans fail to meet the mandated reductions.
In court documents filed last month, California officials said the prisons no longer house enough “low-risk” inmates, and that to fulfill the court's orders officials will have to evaluate the risk of offenders who've committed violent crimes.
"These evaluation and decisions are not quick, clear, or easy," attorneys for the state wrote.