SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Gov. Jerry Brown's administration on Friday asked a panel of federal judges to delay its order that California release nearly 10,000 additional inmates by year's end, granting him time to appeal the decision to the nation's high court.
The judges have said they will permit no further delays in reducing prison crowding, which they previously found was the leading cause of an unconstitutional level of inmate medical care. The judges have threatened to cite Brown for contempt if he does not immediately begin complying.
If the three judges reject Brown's request for a stay, the state said it intends to seek a reprieve from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who oversees appeals from California and other Western states.
A stay could delay inmate releases by a year while the justices consider California's appeal.
The governor has said previously that dangerous felons would have to be released, but the judges said it could be done without a threat to public safety.
Complying with the order before the appeal is considered by the Supreme Court means that "a likelihood of irreparable harm exists," the administration said in its 10-page filing.
That would be because the court's directives "cannot be stopped or undone. ... Individuals now incarcerated will be released before the completion of their terms," the administration said.
It also argued that it is likely to prevail before the nation's high court, even though the Supreme Court has already sided with the judges on the larger question of reducing inmate overcrowding. The high court supported the federal judges' 2009 inmate-release ruling in a 5-4 decision in May 2011, with Kennedy casting the deciding vote.
Yet the administration also said it will comply with the release order if a delay is not granted by the three judges or the Supreme Court.
The three-judge panel last week ordered the Democratic governor to immediately begin taking steps to reduce the population in California's 33 adult prisons to the level they had ordered previously. That would include expanding good-time credits that would lead to early release.
The judges also ordered the administration to take other actions regardless of whether they conflict with state or local laws. Those include sending more inmates to firefighting camps, paroling elderly felons, leasing cells at county jails and slowing the return of thousands of inmates who are housed in private prisons in other states.
If those measures are not enough to trim the prison population to about 110,000 inmates, the state must release the rest from a list of convicts considered at lower-risk to be violent.
The long-running legal battle already has forced California to reduce what once was the nation's largest state prison population by more than 46,000 inmates since 2006. More than half the decrease is due to a two-year-old state law that is sentencing lower-level criminals to county jails instead of state prisons.
But nearly 10,000 more inmates must be released to reach the 110,000 cap set by the courts.
That "raises serious questions about public safety when even inmates deemed 'low risk' are released," the administration argued. The judicial panel rejected that view in its 51-page decision last week.
In 2007, current Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard was a member of an expert panel that recommended California expand good-time credits for all felons regardless of their offense. In 2008, Beard and other expert witnesses testified before the judicial panel and "were unanimous in their agreement that 'such moderate reductions in prison sentences do not adversely affect either recidivism rates or the deterrence value of imprisonment,'" the judges noted in their order.
This week, however, Beard said that was before the state took steps that removed many less serious felons from state prisons, leaving behind a more violent population.
"This is just not something that you can safely undo overnight," he said.
The legal case, filed by attorneys representing the welfare of inmates, focuses on how far the state must go in reducing its inmate population after the courts ruled that prison overcrowding is the main cause of poor inmate medical and mental health care. Federal judges found previously that the level of care fails to meet the constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.
"I think it's very unlikely that the judges are going to find any merit in their motion, and the next battle will be before Justice Kennedy in the Supreme Court," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office.
Court-appointed authorities now oversee inmate medical and mental health care.
California also has spent billions of taxpayer dollars to hire doctors, nurses, dentists and other medical staff, as well as to build additional medical facilities. Just this week, it opened a nearly $840 million medical complex in Stockton with 1,700 beds for inmates.
The governor has said the level of health care delivered inside the state prison system now exceeds the level of care many inmates would receive if they were not in prison.