Federal judges threaten to hold Gov. Brown in contempt for failing to cap prison population

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California faces fines and sanctions—and possible jail time for Governor Brown—if the state continues to defy a federal court order to reduce its prison population.  

That’s the bottom line in a no-nonsense ruling by a three federal judges late Thursday. It came in response to the governor’s motion to vacate a prison population cap those judges imposed in 2006 when they found that overcrowding was the main reason inmates suffered and died from a lack of healthcare.

The judges ordered the state to reduce the prison population by 40,000 inmates. Then-Attorney General Jerry Brown fought the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But in 2011, the justices upheld the order to bring down the state’s prison population.

As governor, Jerry Brown pushed through realignment—the law that hands responsibility for thousands of felons to the counties. That was supposed to bring down the prison population.

But when it became clear last year that the state would fall short of the mark by 9,000 inmates, Governor Brown refused to do more—and he refused in a very public way, said attorney Don Specter with the Prison Law Office.

"The governor put himself in the center of this dispute by holding a press conference in January in which he announced that this was going to be the state’s policy," said Specter.

Brown has been thumbing his nose at the federal court for a year, he said. Threatening the governor with a contempt of court charge is the right call, said Specter.

"They’ve given him one, last, final chance to act like a responsible adult and like a responsible politician and follow the orders of the court," said Specter. "And if he doesn’t, we will ask the court to throw the book at him."

State plans appeal - and plans what to do if the appeal fails

Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the state intends to appeal the order from the three-judge panel to the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to Callison, California has spent more than a billion dollars to improve prison healthcare to the point where it’s the best care offered by any prison system in the country. He said Corrections officials are hoping the Supreme Court will set aside the order to cut loose inmates.

And if it doesn’t?

"The remaining prison population is much more heavily comprised now of more serious offenders," said Callison. "To further reduce would involve a variety of possible measures all of which would result in more serious offenders going into the community earlier than they would have done otherwise."

Worries and options

The thought that the state prison system might have to free more inmates keeps Fontana Police Chief Rodney Jones up at night. He said since realignment took effect, the crime rate in his city has jumped 13 percent.

"The scariest thing for me as a police chief is the prison overcrowding because that’s 9000 people that they missed the mark by - and between now and December, they’ve got to find new homes for them," said Jones.

Jones said the jails in San Bernardino County are already full: For every felon they take in, someone else gets let out.

Law professor Robert Weisberg with the Stanford Criminal Justice Center doubts California can expand realignment without increasing the risk.

"The state may have hit the wall on that score," he said.

But Weinberg said there may be other ways to bring down the prison population to acceptable levels quickly.

"California has some very, very long term, very, very elderly and sometimes frail life prisoners.," said Weinberg. "The governor has expressed some interest in reexamining the criteria by which lifers get a chance for parole release."

Weisberg said lifers did terrible things to earn those long sentences, but he noted they have very low recidivism rates—especially lifers over 50.

But letting more of them get parole won’t shave 9,000 inmates from the system by December. California's best bet to reduce the prison population quickly would be work out deals to house state prisoners in county jails that have room, said Weinberg.

Corrections could also add to the pool of 8,000 inmates now serving terms in private prisons in other states, he said.  

The federal judges gave state officials 21 days to come up with a plan. They also want to see the state work up a system to identify inmates who pose little risk and could be candidates for early release.

As for the Governor’s response? He delivered it during his trade mission in China: He says he’ll refuse to follow the court’s order.

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