Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown has denounced a court order to release more than one out of every four state prisoners in California as counterproductive interference by judicial activists, and said state officials were still deliberating Wednesday whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
While acknowledging that Tuesday's ruling by a three-judge federal panel aims to resolve the same problems with severe prison overcrowding that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants, Brown said the court's latest edict on how to improve the corrections system has only contributed to the "Kafka-esque nightmare" confronting the cash-strapped state.
Federal court edicts already have imposed 19 consent decrees on state agencies trying to improve conditions in the prisons, requiring state officials to devote scarce resources to legal reports and to pay the costs of prisoners' lawsuits as well as those of the state attorneys who defend against them, Brown said.
"There are too many cooks in the kitchen here," Brown said of the court orders governing prison management. "There's no limit to what the courts want the state to spend on its prisoners."
Brown, who is expected to run for governor next year, said he would recommend to Schwarzenegger that the state appeal the court decision imposing a cap on California's prison population that will require the release of nearly 43,000 prisoners over the next two years.
The judges gave the state 45 days to come up with a plan for reducing the number in state custody or face a court order on how to do it.
Asked if Californians were in peril if the state meets the court's demand to bring the prison population down to 137% of designed capacity, or 115,080 instead of the roughly 158,000 currently in state prisons, Brown wavered, noting that about 10,000 prisoners are already released every month after completing their sentences.
A 70% recidivism rate keeps them coming back though, he said.
"The formula for letting out 40,000 prisoners and cutting cops is not a smart one," Brown said, referring to the budget crises forcing local communities to make trims in law enforcement.
Although he excoriated the judges' order as unnecessary and costly interference in a problem already being tackled by the governor and the Legislature, Brown acknowledged that state lawmakers also were to blame for letting partisan politics prevent their agreement on reforms needed to improve rehabilitation programs, pre-release screening and parole.
The judges' involvement in the prison crisis contributes to "an endless process of bureaucratic regulation," Brown said, but he also conceded that the order could provide the necessary "stimulus" for lawmakers to work out a long-overdue reform plan.