SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Supreme Court on has paved the way for the early release of nearly 10,000 California inmates by year’s end, despite warnings by Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials that a public safety crisis looms if they’re forced to open the prison gates.
A majority of justices refused an emergency request by the governor to halt a lower court’s directive for the early release of the prisoners to ease severe overcrowding at California’s 33 adult prisons.
The decision was met with concern by law enforcement officials in the state.
Covina Police Chief Kim Raney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said the justices ignored efforts already underway to reduce prison populations and “chose instead to allow for the release of more felons into already overburdened communities.”
Brown’s office referred a request for comment to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, where Secretary Jeff Beard vowed the state would press on with a still-pending appeal in hope of preventing the releases.
A panel of three federal judges had previously ordered the state to cut its prison population by nearly 8 percent to roughly 110,000 inmates by Dec. 31 to avoid conditions amounting to cruel and unusual punishment. That panel, responding to decades of lawsuits filed by inmates, repeatedly ordered early releases after finding inmates were needlessly dying and suffering because of inadequate medical and mental health care caused by overcrowding.
Court-appointed experts found that the prison system had a suicide rate that worsened last year to 24 per 100,000 inmates, far exceeding the national average of 16 suicides per 100,000 inmates in state prisons.
Brown had appealed the latest decision of the panel and, separately, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to cancel the early release order while considering his arguments that the state is making significant progress in improving conditions. The high court refused Friday to stop the release but did not rule on the appeal itself. Corrections Secretary Beard said the state would press on with that, so the “merits of the case can be considered without delay.”