SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration says in a court filing that the state is falling far short of meeting a demand from federal judges to find thousands of inmates who could be released from prison early without endangering the public.
The judges are requiring the state to free nearly 10,000 inmates by the end of the year to ease prison crowding as the best way to improve treatment for sick and mentally ill inmates. If other methods fail, they ordered the state to reach that level by releasing offenders who are deemed unlikely to commit new crimes.
However, the state said late Thursday that it has identified only about 1,200 inmates who could be safely released.
Last week, Brown asked the U.S. Supreme Court to delay the inmate releases while it considers an appeal by the state. Inmates’ attorneys filed a 73-page challenge Friday asking the high court to reject that request.
The justices should refuse to reconsider the decision they made in 2011, when they upheld the authority of the lower court to order that inmates be released to improve prison conditions, the attorneys said. Moreover, the attorneys said inmates can be released without harming public safety.
“Prisoners are continuing to die and be seriously injured because of the unconstitutional conduct of the state,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that is suing to force the state to reduce prison crowding.
The lower court has threatened to cite the Democratic governor for contempt if he does not reduce the prison population to about 110,000 inmates by Dec. 31.
Last month, the lower court directed the state to take steps, including expanding good-time credits leading to early release, sending more inmates to firefighting camps, paroling sick and elderly felons, leasing cells at county jails and slowing the return of thousands of inmates now housed in private prisons in other states. The state said in its filing that it is working on all those steps.
But the panel of three federal judges projected that all those measures would still fall nearly 4,200 inmates short of reaching the population cap. They directed the state to release the remainder from what it dubbed the Low-Risk List if other options fail.
However, the administration said it so far can identify only 1,205 lower risk inmates from among the 133,000 inmates who remain in the state’s 33 adult prisons, four private prisons and assorted fire camps and community correctional centers.
The state already has reduced the prison population by more than 46,000 inmates since 2006, primarily through a 2-year-old state law that is sentencing lower-level criminals to county jails instead of state prisons. As a result, the administration said in its latest court filing that most of the “low risk” inmates already are gone.
There are 9,077 inmates now serving time for nonviolent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenses, down from 32,397 in June 2007, the state said. However, just 1,205 have a low risk of committing new crimes, do not belong to prison gangs, have not committed felonies in prison within the past 10 years, and have less than a year to serve on their sentences. The count would rise to 1,777 if inmates with more than a year to serve also are released.
The state said it is now working to evaluate higher-risk inmates with violent histories to add to the list. However, corrections spokesman Jeffrey Callison said in an email that the state is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block the releases “because they would unnecessarily jeopardize public safety, and are not needed given the quality medical and mental health care that inmates already receive.”
The department routinely paroles about 3,000 inmates every month, said Specter, the lawyer representing inmates’ welfare.
“No one is complaining about that,” he said. Releasing an additional 9,000 inmates over six months “is not going to cause any significant difference at all.”