SACRAMENTO -- A federal court order for California to shed some 10,000 inmates from its bulging prisons has set up an epic confrontation with state officials who argue it will usher a surge in crime.
The order came after years of legal wrangling between federal judges and state officials over prisons so crowded the courts say they violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Governors have tried various schemes to appease the courts -- Arnold Schwarzenegger sent inmates to private prisons out of state and Jerry Brown's "realignment" lets nonviolent offenders serve their time in local jails instead of the state penitentiary.
But a federal three-judge panel this week said it's not enough and demanded the one thing California authorities have resisted: Early release of thousands of inmates for good behavior by year's end. Brown is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. State and local officials throughout California condemned the order as an assault on public safety.
"The arrogance of these judges is outrageous," said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber. "The safety of every Californian is put at risk by this irresponsible decision, and it must be challenged. There are other solutions."
The order left local officials already working through the prison realignment kinks impacting their jails and probation programs scrambling to figure out how they will handle a surge of thousands more inmates into their communities.
Santa Clara County Probation Chief Sheila Mitchell said she is worried the judges' order "could undermine all the thoughtful work that's been done as a result of realignment."
"What I don't know is out of the 10,000 people, how many of those would come to Santa Clara County and what it might mean," Mitchell said. "I don't have the appropriate staff to continue supervising them at the same level. I'm concerned that they will be released early without supervision."
The judges, however, accused state officials of open "defiance" through foot-dragging on reducing prison crowding. The judges further argued there's no evidence that expanding early-release credits for well-behaved inmates will increase crime.
"We heard extensive testimony from the leading experts in the country, all of whom," the judges wrote, including the state's own prison secretary, "testified that the expansion of good time credits could be implemented safely."
California's prison-overcrowding battle began with a pair of class-action federal lawsuits in 1991 and 2001 alleging inmate mental health in the first case and medical care in the second was so bad it violated the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment.
A three-judge panel in 2009 blamed overcrowding for the poor health treatment and ordered California to reduce its adult prison within two years to alleviate the problem. State officials in 2011 lost an appeal of that determination to the U.S. Supreme Court and later that year launched realignment to reduce inmate populations. But they acknowledge it's not going to do any more than it is now to reduce crowding.
"Realignment reduced the prison population by about 25,000 over a period of 18 months," said Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "But realignment is maxed out."
The state was to meet the prison population reduction by the end of this month, but got an extension until the end of the year.
In this week's order, the three-judge panel found the state's compliance plan inadequate. The judges' had ordered the state to reduce the inmate population to a 137.5 percent of its 33 adult prisons' "design capacity." With the current population estimated at 119,500 inmates -- almost 150 percent of capacity -- that would force a reduction of more than 9,600 prisoners.
State officials argued they could remove some 7,000 inmates by December. Their plan called for a combination of delaying the return of inmates that were to be temporarily housed in private out-of-state prisons, leasing county jail space, diverting more low-level offenders to firefighting camps and a small number of early releases.
But the judges said that not only did the state plan fall short, it overstated the number of prisoners that could be kept longer in out-of-state prisons, and would barely achieve half the required reduction. By expanding "good time" credit to well-behaved prisoners, they argued, the state could free almost 5,400 prisoners.
But state and local officials argue the judges' order to release thousands more inmates early for good prison behavior and put more in county jails on top of realignment will jeopardize safety.
In Oakland, Interim Chief Sean Whent said "this is a concern for our city because we know that recidivism occurs and that criminals commit multiple crimes."
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen also opposes early release. But he said that if the prisons are forced to free some inmates, it should be case by case rather than freeing all who committed a particular low-level crime. Rosen said priority should be given to those who have done most of their time and who committed nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual crimes.
Alameda County Sheriff Gregory J. Ahern, president of the California State Sheriffs Association, said it is working with the governor's office on a backup plan in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear the state's appeal or sides with the federal court -- as experts say is likely.
Ideas include -- more inmates serving their time in county jails, fire camps and out-of-state prisons. Also under review are alternatives like electronic monitoring, particularly for inmates near the end of their sentences
"We do not believe it is a wise decision to let 9,000 to 10,000 inmates out into our communities," he said. "It would increase crime in already high-crime communities."
Staff writers Tracey Kaplan, Tracy Seipel, Harry Harris and Joshua Melvin and contributed to this report. Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.