California has met the first target set by federal courts to reduce its inmate population as a way to improve health care in the nation's largest state prison system, prison officials said Tuesday.
Federal judges ordered the state to reduce the population by about 10,000 inmates by the end of 2011, to about 133,000 inmates, as a means to improve the care of mentally and physically ill inmates. The population in the 33 prisons for adults fell to 132,887 as of last week's court-imposed deadline.
"Based on that number, we have met the benchmark," said Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "It's gratifying to see that we have in fact made it."
The state is reducing its population mainly through a new law transferring responsibility for lower level criminals from state prisons to county jails.
The population is now two-tenths of a percentage point under the goal required by the courts. It means the state is on track to reduce the state's inmate population by 33,000, or 23 percent, over two years.
The state plans to file its formal legal declaration with the federal courts later this week, Callison said.
The reduction is designed to improve inmates' mental health and medical care so judges can end court challenges that have driven most prison operations for years. The lawsuits led to the appointment of a federal receiver to oversee inmate medical care and prompted the state to spend billions of dollars to build new facilities and raise salaries for medical and mental health workers.
The lower court's population reduction order was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in May.
Besides the state's inmates, California also houses about 9,300 inmates in private prisons in other states and about 5,300 inmates in fire camps and private prisons in California.
Prison officials had projected that the state would miss its first target by about a month, but meet its June deadline to reduce the population by about 20,000 inmates. The earlier projection was "just appropriate caution" and nothing dramatic has changed since the shift to local jurisdictions began Oct. 1, Callison said.
Republican lawmakers and some law enforcement officials predict rising crime rates because of the realignment championed by Gov. Jerry Brown to help close the state's budget deficit and reduce prison crowding. But Brown, a Democrat, said the landmark change has significant support from officials despite their fear that state funding will dry up.
"I will say that getting this done, with the support of groups that really shoulder the burden, well it's remarkable that we've got this far and that we enjoy a lot of support. People are trusting me that I'm going to get the money and that I will adjust it as problems show up," Brown said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Brown said the next step is to persuade voters to approve his ballot proposal in November. The measure would enshrine the shift in responsibilities in the state Constitution and provide stable funding. The guarantee would be coupled with Brown's proposal to raise income taxes on those earning more than $250,000 annually, and raise the state sales tax a half-percentage point for five years.
Associated Press writer Juliet Williams contributed to this story,