Four former California governors on Monday supported a request by Gov. Jerry Brown to delay the release of nearly 10,000 prison inmates by year's end.
They sent their request to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who oversees appeals from Western states.
Republicans Pete Wilson, George Deukmejian and Arnold Schwarzenegger were joined by Democrat Gray Davis in the friend-of-the-court brief, which said freeing more inmates "threatens the people of California with grave and irreparable harm from increased crime."
They want Kennedy to halt the releases until the justices can consider the state's appeal of a lower court ruling. The lower court said reducing the inmate population further is necessary to improve prison medical and mental health care.
The 12-page brief was filed through the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which generally supports victims' rights.
It also argues that an early release of certain prison inmates conflicts with a constitutional amendment voters approved in 2008 to ensure the rights of crime victims. California should be free to decide how long to incarcerate felons without interference by the federal courts, the petition says.
The population in California's 33 adult prisons already has been reduced by more than 46,000 inmates since 2006. The panel of three federal judges overseeing the case wants it cut to 110,000 inmates by the end of the year.
It is unusual for such briefs to be filed at this stage of a proceeding, and it's not clear if Kennedy will accept it. The justice has asked for a response by Friday from attorneys representing inmates.
"These are the same governors who caused the problem and have refused to take appropriate action to solve the problem," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which filed the underlying lawsuit on behalf of inmates.
The long-running legal battle focuses on overcrowding in California's adult prisons as the main culprit in substandard inmate medical care. The courts have said the care violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but California has spent billions of dollars on new facilities and staff in recent years. Just last month, it dedicated an $840 million inmate medical complex in Stockton.