Gov. Jerry Brown is challenging federal oversight of state prisons.
“The prison emergency is over,” Brown said in a press conference Tuesday morning. “After decades of work, the job is now complete.”
He filed court documents late Monday night arguing that efforts to reduce prison populations have already succeeded and don’t need to go any further.
In addition he is asking the court to end its receivership of the prison’s mental health program.
“By god, let those judges give us our prisons back,” he said. “We’ll run them right.”
Brown has also issued an executive order ending a state of emergency that his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, declared. That state of emergency allowed California to transfer thousands of prisoners involuntarily out of state. With the order lifted, those prisoners may return to California.
The courts have given California until next June to shrink its prison population to about 110,000 as part of a plan to improve medical care for inmates.
Brown said that cap should be lifted because the prisons have addressed the problem by shedding about 43,000 inmates. “I don’t believe it’s wise or sound public policy to release any more people out of our prisons other than in accordance with state laws.”
Although some of the prisons still exceed their “designed capacity,” Brown said they are not overcrowded. Independent experts have assured him that conditions in the prisons are good enough to protect the inmates’ health.
“We have gone from serious constitutional problems to one of the finest prison systems in the United States,” he said. “Most of the people in the prisons get far better care… inside the prison than they will get once they are on the streets.”
But Rebekah Evenson of the Prison Law Office, which is suing the state, told KQED’s Michael Montgomery that California can meet the court order safely and on time.
“The state can reduce prison crowding through a number of mechanisms including increasing good time credits for prisoners who follow the rules,” she said. “So the only question now is whether the state has the will to comply.”
In addition to satisfying the courts, Evenson says the measures could save California hundreds of millions of dollars.
Brown said it was unreasonable demands from court overseers that are costing the state too much money. With the major problems fixed, the new demands amount to “gold plating,” he said.
He also defended the “realignment” process through which the state transferred thousands of prisoners from state custody to county jails. “We want the community that spawns the crime to handle the crime,” he said. On the other hand, transferring anymore prisoners from the state to the counties would overwhelm local officials, he said.
Brown said he would take his arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. In imposing its cap on the prison population in 2011, the court did not take into consideration improvements in prison conditions, he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of California disagrees with the governor’s assessment of prison conditions.
“Any suggestion that the over-incarceration crisis in California has been remedied belies reality, and it is imperative that state leaders remain committed to ending the state’s decades-long addiction to incarceration that has cost taxpayers billions of dollars and eroded public safety,” said Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice and drug policy for the ACLU of California in a written statement.