SACRAMENTO — A panel of federal judges Thursday threatened to hold Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials in contempt of court if they do not quickly produce a plan to remove thousands of convicts from California's packed prisons.
In a blistering 71-page ruling, the jurists rejected Brown's bid to end restrictions they imposed on crowding in the lockups. The state cannot maintain inmate numbers that violate orders intended to eliminate dangerous conditions behind bars, they said.
Brown and other officials "will not be allowed to continue to violate the requirements of the Constitution of the United States," the judges wrote.
"At no point over the past several months have defendants indicated any willingness to comply, or made any attempt to comply, with the orders of this court," they said. "In fact, they have blatantly defied them."
The judges gave the state 21 days to submit a plan for meeting the population target by the end of the year. Administration officials said they would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The order arrived amid escalating tension between Brown and the judges, who have handled a series of cases involving California prisons, and is a setback for the governor.
In January, Brown declared the prison crisis over and launched a legal and public relations crusade to end court oversight of inmate healthcare, which has been in place since 2006, calling it unnecessarily costly and otherwise burdensome.
But his efforts have been rebuffed. In a related case last week, one of the three judges said mental healthcare in prisons had not improved enough to end oversight in that area.
On Thursday, all three jurists stood behind the population caps they previously ordered — and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld — as a remedy for what they have called substandard conditions due to overcrowding, resulting in unconstitutionally poor inmate care.
The judges specifically criticized Brown in their ruling, saying he had provided "no convincing evidence" that overcrowding is no longer a problem. They said his recent actions raise "serious doubts as to the governor's good faith in this matter and in the prison litigation as a whole."
They said the governor must comply with the court's decisions even if he disagrees with them, and "the rule is applicable to Governor Brown, as well as the lowliest citizen." The judges wrote that they had "exercised exceptional restraint" by not holding contempt proceedings already.
Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, criticized the judges' decision in a prepared statement.
"The truth of the matter is that California has invested more than a billion dollars to transform its prison health care system into one of the best in the country," her statement said. "Our prisons now provide timely and effective health care to inmates that far exceeds what the Constitution requires."
Currently, the prisons hold 119,542 inmates, or 149.5% of the number they were designed to hold, according to a report released this week by the corrections department.
The jurists — U.S. District Judges Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento and Thelton Henderson in San Francisco and Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Los Angeles — have ordered the state to reduce crowding to 137.5% of capacity. About 9,500 inmates would have to be removed to meet that goal.
The original deadline for the reduction was June, but the judges granted a six-month extension.
California has been trying to reduce its inmate population by keeping low-level offenders in local jails instead of sending them to state prisons. State officials say the worst problems are over and inmates are no longer housed in gymnasiums and activity rooms.
Progress toward meeting the cap has slowed, however, and officials have been reluctant to consider other ways to ease crowding. Hoffman said further steps to free up space in prisons would "unnecessarily jeopardize public safety."
The judges disagreed. "Releasing comparatively low-risk inmates somewhat earlier than they would otherwise have been released has no adverse effects on public safety," they wrote.
Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office and the lawyer leading the lawsuit that resulted in the population cap, said he expected the order to be upheld, calling it "airtight."
"The decision demolishes any argument the governor has to get out from under the prison population cap," Specter said.
Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.