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California governor grudgingly lists ways to ease prison crowding

California Governor Jerry Brown speaks at the 7th Annual California Hall of Fame induction ceremony at The California Museum in Sacramento,
California Governor Jerry Brown speaks at the 7th Annual California Hall of Fame induction ceremony at The California Museum in Sacramento,

By Sharon Bernstein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown, under court order to produce a plan to ease overcrowding in state prisons, pointed to plans to reopen two closed facilities and move some inmates to camps, but otherwise defiantly rapped a three-judge panel for the "intrusiveness" of the case.

Brown's filing stopped short of laying out precisely how the most populous U.S. state would realistically reduce the prison population to a level demanded by the court in a move that could put him on a collision course with the judges.

"We respect the court's authority to order the list of measures, but we submitted it under protest," Jeff Beard, Brown's secretary for corrections and rehabilitation, said of the response to the panel's demand for a blueprint.

The judges had previously threatened Brown with contempt unless a detailed plan was filed by a midnight deadline Thursday.

California has been under court orders to reduce population in the 33-prison system since 2009, when the same judicial panel ordered it to relieve the overcrowding that has caused inadequate medical and mental healthcare.

Brown asked the judges in January to vacate the order to further lower the prison population, saying California had fixed its overcrowding problem and the poor prison healthcare services that had resulted from it.

He said further releases of prisoners would harm public safety, but federal judges rejected that bid last month.

California's prisons currently hold about 50 percent more inmates than they were designed to house. The court order requires the state to reduce that number so the facilities are only 37.5 percent over maximum capacity.

Among possible ways to reduce crowding, Brown said in the filing, would be to move some prisoners to fire camps, where they can learn to help emergency crews respond to wildfires that plague California every spring and summer.

SOME OPTIONS 'NOT DESIRABLE'

But many of the plan's 46 pages were spent explaining that the changes outlined were either not possible without changes approved by the legislature or were undesirable.

Among potential remedies that would require legislative approval would be changing the rules to make it easier for prisoners to earn parole, the filing said. Others include contracting with local counties to house more inmates in their jails or sending inmates to private prisons.

Brown said in the filing that his administration would write proposed new laws but not necessarily work for their passage.

"The court's ... directive certainly cannot mean that the governor must advocate for the legislature to pass measures that would jeopardize public safety," Brown and his lawyers wrote.

Brown promised to appeal the judges' order to the U.S. Supreme Court, even though the high court has already ruled against the state in the case.

Beard, who heads the prison system, said the only way to reduce the population without going to the legislature would be to rely on the already planned reopening of two prisons in the Stockton area, and to use the fire camps.

One of the Stockton prisons will open in July, and the other next February, he said, housing a total of 2,800 inmates. But Beard said neither that nor more use of fire camps would bring the prison population to target levels.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported 119,213 inmates on January 2, just under 150 percent of capacity but well above the 137.5 percent target.

The other options "are not desirable things," he said. "Some of the things could affect public safety. It could also be very costly to the taxpayers."

Mike Bien, an attorney representing inmates in the case, said the state's response did not provide a concrete plan for easing overcrowding, as the judges had ordered.

"I don't see anything in here that's new or additional," Bien said. "It's a pretty defiant position."

In its filing, submitted late Thursday night, Brown argued that the healthcare issues underlying the court's order had already been addressed and called on the judges to consider "the current state of the prison health care system."

"This is especially true given the significant cost and intrusiveness of these decades-old cases," the filing said.

The judges have not signaled when they will respond to the state's latest move in the case.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and; Eric Beech)

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