Gov. Jerry Brown vows to continue fight over prison conditions

California Gov. Jerry Brown delivers his State of the State address at the Capitol.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

SHANGHAI, CHINA -- Contending there is nothing more California can do to reduce prison crowding without increasing crime on the streets, Gov. Jerry Brown vows to take his case, again, to the same Supreme Court that rebuffed him two years ago.

“We will litigate until the Supreme Court tells us that we’re not on the right track,” Brown said late Thursday night from China, where he is leading a trade delegation.

He said California already is grappling with complaints of increased crime under his 2011 prison realignment plan, which reduced the state’s inmate population by requiring counties to house low-level felons and most parole violators. Those reductions have not been enough, and federal courts twice in the past week have ruled inmate care, particularly treatment of mentally ill prisoners, remains unconstitutionally cruel.


Though federal judges have asked him to explore all possible options, Brown focused on the specter of mass prison releases and what that would do to public safety.

“If they feel bad now, wait till another 10,000 hit the streets under the orders of the federal courts,” Brown said. “That’s not going to happen, though, until we appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

But Brown also portrayed California’s problem as a balancing act between humane prison conditions and public safety. “See, we have two problems here,” the governor said. “Some are saying we have too many people let lose and then we have the judges saying not enough... So somewhere we’re going to find the golden mean and I will do my best to make it work.”

“I personally am going to be taking my own personal inspection tour of those prisons, which the judge feels are not up to snuff, and I will certainly listen and read what the critics say,” he said. “But I have to tell you the constitutional standard is deliberate indifference and as far as I know there is nobody deliberately indifferent to the health needs of the California prisoners. And if I find such a person, he will be fired on the spot.”

There are other options to mass release of prisoners on the table. The state currently pays a private prison company to house 8,500 inmates out of state, as far away as Mississippi. Citing a desire to reduce spending, Brown wants to cancel those contracts.

Advocates meanwhile press for changes in California’s drug sentencing laws, to reduce the flood of prisoners, along with increases in compassionate release programs, such as the proposed early parole of elderly inmates deemed to pose little public safety threat.