By Greg Lucas
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California's Democratic Governor Jerry Brown asked federal judges on Tuesday to lift a court order demanding further releases of state prisoners to reduce overcrowding, saying that such a move could harm public safety.
Brown, who said the state had already "shaped up" on prisons, said he was striking a "middle path" that protects the public while saving state dollars better invested in education and other state functions.
"Let the judges give us our prisons back. We'll run them right," Brown told a news conference at the state Capitol.
California has been under court orders to reduce population in the 33-prison system since 2009, when a panel of federal judges ordered it to relieve the overcrowding that has caused inadequate medical and mental health care.
The U.S. Supreme Court later rebuffed California's appeal of a requirement to reach 137.5 percent capacity by June 27, 2013, saying the state needed to release tens of thousands of inmates or take other steps to ease crowding and prevent "needless suffering and death."
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported 119,213 in-state inmates on January 2, just under 150 percent of design capacity.
Brown's remarks came after a January 7 deadline for state prison officials to explain the steps they would take to lower inmate population at California's 33 prisons to 137.5 percent of "design capacity," or approximately 110,000 inmates.
Doing so would require reducing the state prison population by an additional 9,000 prisoners. But Brown said the state had met the intent of the court's edict and that further releases would harm public safety.
"In the years since the court issued the current population cap order, the state has dramatically reduced the prison population, significantly increased capacity through construction, and implemented a myriad of improvements that transformed the medical and mental health care systems," court filings by the Brown administration said.
Brown, as ordered by a three-judge panel supervising efforts to ease prison crowding, included in his court filings other possible actions to further reduce inmate population. But he said implementing the options was neither "smart" nor "sound."
Among the proposed ways to reduce crowding further: Shortening sentences through greater use of inmate credits for good behavior, sending more types of felons, like car thieves and forgers, to county jails, contracting with additional private prisons and releasing inmates sooner.
Since 2006, the state's inmate population has fallen by more than 43,000 and crowding has dropped from a high of more than 200 percent capacity.
More than half that reduction occurred since October 2011 through "realignment," a budget move championed by Brown that transferred incarceration of more than 23,000 inmates from state prisons to county jails.
To illustrate the progress, Brown's lawyers included before-and-after photographs in their court filings of now-empty gymnasiums formerly jammed with triple-bunked inmates.
Brown says that the health care state inmates receive is better than that enjoyed by many Californians. But prisoner rights lawyers say medical services are still poor and intend to challenge Brown's request to remove the population cap.
"The governor's assertion that the prison crisis in California is over is demonstrably false," said Allen Hopper, criminal justice and drug policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of California.
"Brown has thrown down the gauntlet in this latest filing. He's telling the judges 'the state shouldn't have to come down to 137.5 percent of capacity and that we don't want to take additional steps to reduce overcrowding and, if you order us to do these things we don't want to do we'll appeal that,'" he added.
(Reporting and writing by Greg Lucas; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Dan Grebler)