SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown says it's time for the federal courts to end their oversight of medical care and other operations within the California prison system, and he's named a somewhat surprising ally to help him make the case.
Jeffrey Beard, who testified four years ago that California's prisons were dangerously overcrowded, began work last week as secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Beard now says conditions have improved so much that California should no longer be required to reduce the inmate population to the level he once supported as an expert witness testifying before a panel of federal judges.
"To the extent that they found what I said credible before, if I say something today, hopefully they'll find that credible, as well," Beard told The Associated Press in a sit-down interview Friday.
Brown filed court papers this month asking the judges to lift their population cap, effectively leaving the state's 33 adult prisons with about 10,000 more inmates than the level ordered by the court based on testimony by Beard and other corrections experts. The cap set in 2009 was supported by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, but Brown said he is prepared to appeal again to the nation's high court.
"I think they're going to be impressed that the very critic, namely the plaintiffs' expert witness, is now running the system," the Democratic governor said while announcing the court challenge.
Beard's support is significant because he said changes since his testimony mean California can meet constitutional standards despite having more inmates than allowed by the court order. The prisons now hold a total of 43,000 fewer inmates than they did in 2006.
"That's a historic change. There's nobody else in the country that's done that," said Beard, who retired after leading the Pennsylvania prison system for nearly a decade.
California's prison system had been the nation's largest but now trails Texas in the number of inmates, even though Texas has about 12 million fewer residents.
The reduction was accomplished mainly through Brown's so-called realignment plan, which took effect in October 2011 and sentences lower-level offenders to county jail instead of state prison.
Under court order, the state also has spent billions of dollars to build more and better health care facilities and improve the treatment of mentally and physically ill inmates, in part by hiring more doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.
"You add all of that up and you have a system that is much more nimble, much more responsive and much more able to deal with the mental health and the medical issues than it ever could have back before," said Beard, who will make $225,000 a year in his new role.
Attorneys who have sued the state over poor care and overcrowding praised Beard's appointment but said it will not influence the courts.
"The tremendous challenges that face the state remain," said Michael Bien, the lead attorney in the court battle over mental health care. "While I support the appointment of Jeff Beard, I don't think in-and-of itself it amounts to a hill of beans."