SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California is considering speeding up the release of some inmates while allowing other inmates with a violent history to become firefighters, under a proposal to cut crowding in state prisons Gov. Jerry Brown filed late Thursday night.
"The plan is ugly. We don't like it. But considering the inmates we have left in our prison population, it's the best plan we can come up with," Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said at a Friday news conference.
Beard said some of the options could undermine public safety, and said the state plans to appeal in an attempt to avoid going through with the measures.
The governor's plan calls for increasing early release credits for inmates and paroling elderly and incapacitated prisoners, while slowing the return of thousands of inmates who are being held in private prisons in other states.
Federal courts required the state to outline by midnight Thursday how it intends to meet a court-ordered population cap by the end of the year. A panel of federal judges threatened last month to hold the Democratic governor personally accountable if they decide he is not complying with their long-standing order, which already has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state already is sentencing thousands of lower-level offenders to county jails instead of prison. But the judges ruled that it must reduce its prison population by an additional 9,300 inmates to improve medical and mental health care for inmates.
The state's plan includes:
— Expanding the number of inmate firefighters by allowing participation by some offenders convicted of serious and violent crimes. The state has enough firefighters this year without taking that step, Beard said, but could do so in the future.
— Granting more early release or "good time" credits to inmates, including second-strike inmates who have serious prior convictions.
— Paroling elderly and medically incapacitated inmates.
— Increasing the use of drug treatment centers.
— Paying to house more inmates at county jails with extra space, and possibly at private prisons within California.
— Slowing the return of the 8,400 inmates who are being housed in private prisons in three other states at an annual cost of about $300 million.
Two other existing measures already will help reduce crowding.
The state will add space for 1,700 sick and mentally ill inmates when a new $840 million treatment facility opens in Stockton this summer. And the state projects that about 900 inmates will be freed because voters in November softened the state's tough three-strikes lifetime sentencing law for career criminals. Third-strikers with lesser offenses can apply for shorter sentences.
The administration argued against many of the proposals even as it presented the options to the court in a series of legal filings.
Most would require legislative approval, but the administration argued that Brown cannot be expected to "advocate for the Legislature to pass measures that would jeopardize public safety." However, the court has said it could waive state laws if lawmakers don't agree.
"It's still pretty defiant," said Michael Bien, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit over prison crowding. "They're saying we're not going to comply willingly, you're going to have to force us in some way, shape or form."
Brown said in a one-sentence tweet that "the state's filing speaks for itself."
Under the court order, the state must reduce the population in its 33 adult prisons to about 110,000 inmates by year's end.
The population already has been reduced by about 25,000 inmates under a two-year-old law that is sending felons convicted of what are deemed to be non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual offenses to county jails instead of state prisons.
Brown argued that most of the less serious offenders already have been removed from the state prison system, and that the state can no longer afford to provide expensive care in prisons at the expense of schools and other social services.
The federal judges ruled that the state can further reduce the prison population without increasing crime.