By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court refused on Friday to excuse California from a lower-court order demanding that the nation's largest state prison system reduce its inmate population by about 10,000 convicts this year to ease crowding.
State prison officials, insisting that further cuts are unnecessary, said they were working to meet the court-ordered prison population target by their December 31 deadline, but warned that doing so would be costly and pose a risk to public safety.
The state's petition to the high court, denied by the majority without comment, argued that conditions had improved in the 33-prison system in recent years, despite federal court rulings that overcrowding caused problems with mental health and medical care for inmates.
California's request for a stay was the latest move in a dispute between Governor Jerry Brown and a panel of three federal judges over management of the prison system, which has also been plagued by inmate hunger strikes and occasional violence.
While losing its bid for a stay, the state is continuing to prepare a Supreme Court appeal on the merits of the case, state Corrections and Rehabilitation Department spokesman Jeffrey Callison said.
"In terms of complying with the order in the meantime, it's our position that it would endanger public safety and be expensive," he told Reuters.
Callison said the department is still reviewing a combination of several options, such as sending some prisoners to in-state private facilities or leasing space from county lockups.
State officials have said California already has made substantial progress in easing crowded prison conditions.
Tens of thousands of low-risk inmates are being diverted from state prisons to the local authorities, and good-behavior credits have been expanded for certain classes of inmates to allow earlier releases.
As a result, the state says, the corrections department no longer has to keep overflow inmates in gymnasiums and day rooms, but has returned those facilities to their intended purposes.
EARLY RELEASE VS. PUBLIC SAFETY
The state's high court filing sought a stay of a recent order by the panel of judges to bring prisons to 137.5 percent of capacity, which requires California to either find new facilities for about 10,000 inmates or let them go.
The state contends that target is arbitrary and not necessary to reach in order to improve inmate healthcare.
As of July 24, California's prisons held about 119,300 inmates, roughly 46 percent more than they were meant to house.
"One way to comply would be releasing more than 9,500 prisoners early, but we have no intention of doing that," Callison said.
He said the state had been directed to identify at least 4,000 inmates who could be paroled with a low risk of committing new offenses that would land them back in prison, but the department was only able to find about 1,200.
The three appellate judges ruled in 2009, after years of litigation, that California's prisons can be permitted to exceed their design capacity, but they set a specific cap on the inmate population.
Increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of the state's response, the three judges, Stephen Reinhardt, Lawrence Karlton and Thelton Henderson, have twice threatened Brown with contempt of court. In 2011, the Supreme Court backed up the federal judges, saying the state had to reduce crowding.
As a result of the cases underlying the court order, medical care in the prisons also has been placed under the supervision of a court-appointed federal receiver and mental healthcare is being watched by a special master.
There was no official public vote on the state's latest petition by the nine-member Supreme Court. But three of the court's nine justices, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, went on record in favor of a stay.
The majority's decision to uphold the lower-court order came even as new attention is being focused on California prisons since thousands of inmates launched a hunger strike last month to protest conditions in special housing units where some prisoners are held for prolonged periods in isolation.
The protest is the third and largest hunger strike staged by inmates over solitary confinement in the last two years.
State officials deny the inmates' claims of inhumane conditions, saying that some prisoners have cell mates, are permitted visits and have access to a law library.
(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; additional reporting by David Ingram in Washington and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, David Gregorio and Andre Grenon)