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On California Prisons, It's The Governor Vs. The Courts

Gov. Jerry Brown in January calls for federal judges to return control of California prisons to the state. This month, a federal appeals court denied Brown's request and ordered the state to reduce its prison population immediately.
Rich Pedroncelli
Gov. Jerry Brown in January calls for federal judges to return control of California prisons to the state. This month, a federal appeals court denied Brown's request and ordered the state to reduce its prison population immediately.

California Gov. Jerry Brown is locked in a legal battle over control of his state's prison system. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling ordering the state to drastically reduce its prisoner population. Brown claims the state has made substantial progress, but the governor has stopped short of complying fully with the court order.

There's a long history of legal wrangling over California prisons. A federal court first ruled in the 1990s that mental health and medical care for inmates was so bad that the state's prisons violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2011, after more than a decade of court battles, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population to about 110,000 inmates.

"What the court found was that the overcrowding was preventing the prison officials from delivering adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners," says Don Specter, the lead attorney for the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, a penal reform group.

In its ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court gave California until June of this year to reduce its prisoner population. The state responded by shifting about 25,000 low-level offenders to local county jails in a process called "realignment."

Even so, the state prisons are still about 10,000 prisoners over capacity. And in January, Brown surprised many legal experts by throwing down the gauntlet. He said it was time to end what he called "intrusive federal oversight" of California prisons.

"Our prisons are not overcrowded," he said. "The experts that not only work here in California, but whom we hired to come and look at our system, advise me that our system is meeting the highest standards of health care and mental health care."

Brown said the state already has spent billions of dollars to improve prison conditions and that he can't release the last 10,000 inmates without jeopardizing public safety. He also accused the courts of "nitpicking."

But Brown's defiance got him nowhere. Earlier this month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled against the governor — in very blunt words. California, it said, is still required to obey the Supreme Court order and "must immediately take all steps necessary to comply."

'Picking A Fight'

The governor's stance has led some legal experts to say Brown is provoking a constitutional crisis reminiscent of the civil rights era.

"The legal arguments that the state is putting forward make no sense," says Barry Krisberg, who teaches law at the University of California, Berkeley. He says it was unlikely that the same appellate court that ordered the state to reduce its prison population would have a change of heart.

"And I don't see what's the logic in picking a fight now, particularly a fight you can't win," he adds.

Indeed, many in California's legal community are scratching their heads at what Brown hopes to accomplish by challenging court orders. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at University of California, Irvine, says Brown is provoking a constitutional crisis.

"I think his defiance of the federal court order requiring the reduction of the California prisoner population is reminiscent of the Southern governors of the 1950s declaring their defiance of federal court desegregation orders," Chemerinsky says. "Both were misguided efforts to undermine enforcement of the Constitution."

And Chemerinsky isn't alone in that assessment. In its ruling against Brown, the appellate court panel also cited the same comparison with Southern governors.

But the Democratic governor shows no sign of backing down, at least not yet. At a victims' rights rally last week, Brown told attendees that this is a fight over public safety.

"I'm working every day trying to figure out how to take this case, which we are losing now, to get in front of the U.S. Supreme Court so we don't have to let out those 10,000 people," he said. "And I pledge to you that I will do everything under the law to achieve that result."

The next act in this legal drama will come in early May. That's when California has to submit its plan to shift those last 10,000 inmates out of the prison system — or find itself in contempt of court.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Richard Gonzales
Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.