The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court ruling that California bears responsibility for nearly 2,000 disabled parolees housed in county jails.
The decision could leave state taxpayers liable for problems at some of the jails, said Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The high court did not comment as it declined to consider Gov. Jerry Brown's appeal of a January 2012 decision by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland.
She ruled that state prison officials failed to monitor and protect former inmates who were returned to county jails instead of state prisons for parole violations under a now 3-year-old state law.
That law keeps most parole violators and lower-level offenders in county jails instead of state prisons in response to federal court orders requiring the state to reduce the prison population.
The ruling in the parolee case was upheld last year by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, despite objections by the state.
"We believe that the lower court impinged upon a state's right to delegate responsibilities to local governments," Callison said.
The state penal code says parole violators in county jails are under counties' jurisdiction, he said, but "the federal court decided that didn't matter, that they were still ultimately state parolees."
That could make the state financially responsible for providing jailed parolees with the accommodations to which they are entitled under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.
"The state could be theoretically liable for conditions in buildings that it doesn't operate or own," Callison said. He said there is no way to determine the potential cost because individual parolees would have to sue and force changes.
Several counties are now being sued over conditions similar to those that led the federalcourts to order the population reduction.
Michael Bien, an attorney representing parolees in the case, said the U.S. Supreme Courtruling merely requires the state to keep doing what it has been doing for the past year.
Based on Wilken's original order, the state sends an email to jail officials disclosing if the parolee needs a wheelchair, for instance, or is blind or deaf. Parole agents will also provide jailed parolees with a grievance form so they can complain if their needs aren't met.
"We have not asked, nor has the court ordered, anyone to retrofit a county jail to comply with the court order," Bien said. "This is the same kind of 'the sky is falling' argument that the state has been raising again and again."