California Reluctant To Further Reduce Its Prison Population

California is in the midst of an effort to bring its prison population down, as ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. California Gov. Jerry Brown has submitted a new plan to further reduce the number of inmates. But he's still striking a defiant tone toward the courts — saying he's done enough to address overcrowding concerns.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

To California now, where Governor Jerry Brown promises to keep fighting federal court orders to reduce his state's prison population. While Brown did meet a deadline late last night to file a plan for further inmate cuts, he insists those cuts will jeopardize public safety, and he says he intends to take an appeal back to the Supreme Court. NPR's Richard Gonzales has the story.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The court filing issued just before a midnight deadline outlines a plan to reduce California's prisoner population by about 10,000 inmates over the next year. Some will be sent to fire camps; others will be released early if they have good-time credits. Elderly and medically incapacitated prisoners will be paroled.

But the plan comes only after a three-judge federal court panel threatened the governor with contempt of court. And in a news conference today, California prison chief Jeff Beard made it clear the Brown administration is submitting its plan under protest.

JEFF BEARD: These prisons are running fine at the current capacity level. These prisons are providing a constitutional level of care and we don't believe we have to do any more. And that's why we have not submitted a plan before this. We're only doing this under court order.

GONZALES: Four years ago, a federal court panel ruled that California prisons were so overcrowded that the quality of medical and mental health care was unconstitutional. That ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state responded by shifting about 25,000 low-level offenders to local county jails in a process known as realignment. Beard says county jails can't take anymore inmates without jeopardizing public safety, and he says the state will continue to pursue an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And that's why this legal fight has attracted so much attention. While the governor is complying with the court order, his statements have been incredibly defiant. Michael Beene(ph) is an attorney who has been fighting the state over prison conditions.

MICHAEL BEENE: In other words, the state is still saying you're wrong, judges, everything is fine in the prisons, we're already delivering constitutional care, and we're not going to comply.

GONZALES: More than a few legal experts in California have even suggested that Governor Brown is provoking a constitutional crisis. But unless the federal court changes its mind, the state of California has until the end of the year to implement the prisoner reduction plan it outlined last night. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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