Bunks are placed in open areas at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, Calif. The state is under court order to reduce the prison population by 34,000 in two years. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
Reporting from Sacramento -- California is unlikely to meet a federal court mandate to reduce its prison population by 34,000 inmates within two years, so state officials should ask for more time, the Legislature's top advisor said Friday.
Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor also challenged Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to reduce the number of inmates sent to out-of-state contract prisons, saying California instead should consider exporting more felons.
"The administration's push to reduce the number of these out-of-state beds while at the same time reducing overcrowding in the prisons makes little sense at the present time in our view," said the report by the Legislative Analyst's Office.
Brown has not decided whether to seek an extension of the court-imposed deadline, but believes the report "confirms that California is on the right track" with its plan to send some state inmates to county jails, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford.
Taylor's report agreed that shifting thousands of low-level offenders to serve their sentences in county jails would move the state closer to complying with the court order. But the analysis "indicates that the realignment plan alone is unlikely to reduce overcrowding sufficiently within the two-year deadline."
Sending some offenders to jails and local parole programs could reduce the prison population by 32,000 inmates, the report said, but that won't be accomplished in two years and it would still leave the state "several thousand" inmates short of the court's requirement.
California currently has more than 143,000 inmates in 33 prisons. In May, the U.S Supreme Court upheld a ruling by a federal three-judge panel requiring the state to reduce overcrowding, although the justices urged some flexibility on the deadline.
Compliance could be harder to achieve if the state follows through on plans to reduce the number of inmates sent to contract prisons, the report warned. The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has contracts to hold 10,000 California inmates in out-of-state prisons and about 4,000 in contract prisons in the state.
Taylor recommended that the Legislature continue, "and possibly expand," the out-of-state program "at least until such time as [the Corrections Department] is able to comply with the … inmate population reduction targets."
As California reduces its prison population and frees up beds, it would make sense "to start to bring inmates back," said department spokesman Oscar Hidalgo. "But there are no immediate plans, and we will not do that" if it risks being in noncompliance, he said.
Taylor's office also recommended that new contracts for prison-construction projects be put on hold until a review can determine whether they will be needed when the inmate-reduction mandates are met.
Ashford said the Brown administration was working with the Legislature "to guarantee that new facilities will only be constructed if absolutely necessary."