SACRAMENTO — Following through on a deal struck with legislative leaders, Gov. Jerry Brown told federal judges Monday that he is prepared to spends hundreds of millions of dollars moving inmates out of crowded prisons — but would rather use the money to rehabilitate prisoners so they don't come back.
To do that, the state is asking for a three-year delay in meeting the inmate population caps the judges ordered in 2010.
"For prison population reduction measures to be effective and lasting, they cannot be unilaterally imposed," the governor's lawyers said in a late-night filing, arguing that "state prisons are just one part of the larger, interconnected criminal justice system."
The proposal Brown submitted is based on a compromise hammered out with lawmakers who opposed his plan to reduce crowding by sending thousands of inmates to privately owned prisons and other detention facilities.
If judges agree to delay the deadline, Brown will still move 2,500 inmates out of state lockups and into alternative facilities within California, according to the court filing. And he will set aside $150 million next year for treating drug abuse and mental illness and other rehabilitation programs.
If the judges say no, the state proposes to meet their Dec. 31 deadline by spending $315 million this year — and more the next — to move more than three times as many prisoners, primarily to private lockups as far away as Mississippi.
Backers of the rehabilitation plan say that it would have a more enduring effect on the prison population, though it might take years to achieve the reductions the court wants now.
The lead attorney for California inmates said the governor's proposal lacked detail and largely centered on appointing a former county probation official to come up with further ideas.
"There is no 'there' there," said Don Specter of the Prison Law Office. "It's very disappointing."
In a declaration accompanying Brown's filing, state corrections chief Jeffrey Beard asked judges to make their decision by Sept. 27.
It is unclear whether the three federal judges will go along with Brown's plan. They have shown increasing impatience with California's failure to relieve inmate crowding after more than two decades of litigation.
As recently as July, they refused to give the state more time, saying it is "clear that defendants remained unwilling" to comply. In addition, they warned that they may make further demands, even if California meets their numbers.
"It is not enough simply to meet a specific target number of prisoners on a specific date," the judges wrote in July, noting that "durability is necessary."
Nevertheless, Brown said last week that there was a reasonable chance the judges might extend, for a third time, their 2010 order to remove more inmates. He said the compromise was not struck without some "foundation," citing "smoke signals emanating from the mountaintops." But he did not elaborate.
As a display of California's efforts to reducing crowding, Brown's filing Monday cited not only the money the state has already spent trying to fix its prison problems but also the governor's personal record of allowing inmates serving life sentences to be freed on parole.
Previous governors blocked up to 98% of those parole grants, but Brown has stopped only 18%, his lawyers told the court.
They also noted that the governor has appointed former Fresno County probation chief Linda Penner to lead an effort to develop other crime prevention programs.