SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected California's appeal of a lower-court order that could force the state to release thousands of California prison inmates before they complete their sentences.
The justices did not comment on their order, which leaves in place the earlier ruling by a panel of three federal judges requiring California to reduce its prison population by an additional 9,600 inmates to improve conditions.
California Gov. Jerry Brown has argued that the state cannot meet that goal without releasing dangerous felons and jeopardizing public safety.
In 2011, the justices ruled that the three judges on the lower court had the authority to order California to reduce inmate overcrowding as the key condition for improving prison medical care.
Spokesmen for Brown and the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said they could not immediately comment.
"They already lost once and the Supreme Court said you don't get a second bite at the apple," Michael Bien, one of the attorneys representing inmates, said of Tuesday's decision. "Hopefully it's the signal to all the parties that it's time to comply with the three-judge court's orders and move on with the reforms that are necessary, rather than resisting."
The decision comes as state officials are in settlement talks with attorneys representing inmates.
In considering the state's appeal a second time, the high court had three options: affirming the three-judge court's decision, dismissing it because of a lack of jurisdiction, or accepting the case on appeal.
"The appeal is dismissed for want of jurisdiction," the court said, without further explanation.
At the heart of the case is a 2001 lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates who claimed medical treatment in the prisons was so poor it was leading to a death a week through neglect or malpractice.
The federal courts agreed, saying conditions were so bad that they violated inmates' constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment.
In addition to spending billions of dollars on new medical facilities and staff, the state also has been ordered to reduce overcrowding, which was seen as a main obstacle to providing better health care. The state has also been forced to take similar steps to improve inmate mental health treatment, the subject of a separate lawsuit.
California's state prison population already has been reduced by more than 46,000 inmates since 2006 to meet the federal court mandates. The judges have ordered that the population in the state's 33 adult prisons be reduced to 137.5 percent of design capacity — or 110,000 inmates — by the end of this year.
In arguing against the inmate-reduction order, the Brown administration said the state would have to release serious and violent offenders. The governor also argued in court filings that the lower court has overstepped its authority under federal law.
But in refusing to consider the state's appeal, the justices handed Brown the latest in a series of defeats that have haunted the state's prison system.