Against growing odds, Gov. Jerry Brown formally asked the U.S. Supreme Court late Friday to intervene once again in California's yearslong battle with federal judges over control of the state's prison system.
The Democratic governor filed his formal appeal asking the justices to overturn a lower court decision requiring the state to reduce its prison population by nearly 10,000 inmates by the end of the year to improve conditions.
The appeal came the same day as the U.S. Justice Department indicated that it may intervene in an ongoing lawsuit over California's treatment of inmates with severe mental illness, and as a lower federal court dumped cold water on the administration's plan to transfer more inmates to private prisons in other states.
Brown filed the appeal just a week after the Supreme Court soundly rejected the state's request to postpone the lower court's requirement that California reduce what once was the nation's largest correctional system to hold no more than 110,000 inmates in its major prisons.
Even if the high court agrees this fall to consider the state's objections, a ruling is unlikely until next year. That would be too late to help California avoid complying with the order.
The administration argues in its appeal that the lower court made up of three federal trampled on the state's right to govern its own corrections system when it directed California to transfer or release thousands of inmates.
The Supreme Court backed the lower court's authority in a 5-4 decision in 2011.
But Brown argues that the judges failed to consider that California already has reduced the prison population by more than 46,000 inmates since 2006, primarily through a 2-year-old state law that is sentencing lower-level criminals to county jails instead of state prisons. The administration says most of the low risk inmates are already gone and that releasing those who remain would endanger the public.
The administration also argues in its 45-page appeal that the judges have not considered evidence showing that prison health care now exceeds constitutional standards after the state invested billions of dollars to improve treatment.
However, a majority of the Supreme Court justices indicated last week that they believe the state is unlikely to succeed in its latest attempt to avoid following the courts' orders. Just three of the nine justices dissented when the court rejected the state's attempt to delay action for months while the high court considers California's appeal.
Meanwhile, the lower court signaled that it may not go along with the administration's new plan, outlined by Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard this week, to transfer more inmates to private out-of-state prisons instead of freeing them early to lower the prison population.
Roughly 4,000 more inmates will be given additional good time credits leading to their early release later this year, unless the lower court agrees to let the state rent additional private prison cells and surplus space in local jails as an alternative. The lower court emphasized in a four-page filing on Friday that their current order does not permit the state to send more inmates out of state.
Beard said the state expects to soon seek the court's permission to rent more prison cells as one alternative to early releases.
In a related development Friday, the federal government filed a ``statement of interest'' in an ongoing lawsuit over whether California is violating the rights of severely mentally ill inmates who are kept in solitary confinement for extended periods. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento has scheduled a hearing in November on the isolation issue.
The U.S. Justice Department noted that earlier this year it determined that extended isolation violated mentally ill inmates' rights in a Pennsylvania prison, where Beard used to head the state corrections department.
The department said it previously had found similar abuses in prisons or jails in Hawaii, Maryland, Tennessee and Wisconsin, though it emphasized that it has not determined if conditions in California similarly violate federal law or the U.S. Constitution.