Department officials rejected the three-judge court's suggestion that the state could comply with the population standards by releasing some prisoners early without endangering the public. Those possibilities would include granting inmates greater sentence reductions for good behavior and expanding Gov. Jerry Brown's realignment program, which has moved low-level felons from prisons to county jails.
"The Supreme Court did not authorize the early release of prisoners," state lawyers told the court. Continued enforcement of the requirement to reduce the inmate population to 112,000 by next June, they argued, "will come at a significant, and legally unnecessary, cost to the state" and also "interferes with the state's democratic processes."
Instead, state lawyers said, the court should increase the population target to 118,000, a goal the prisons can meet by March 2013. Recent improvements in prison health care - which has been under federal court supervision since 2006 - show that "constitutionally adequate" care can be provided without further reductions, the lawyers said.
They said independent monitors had given the prisons good grades in recent inspections and also cited the construction of a 1,700-bed prison hospital in Stockton, due to open in July.
Donald Specter, a lawyer for inmates who sued the prisons over their medical care in 2001, said the filing shows that California "never intended to comply with the Supreme Court's order."
Describing Brown's actions in the case as "disgraceful," Specter said the prisoners' lawyers would ask the court to hold state officials in contempt if they defied the population-reduction orders.
The three-judge panel has overseen the case since 2007, a year after one of its members, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco, found that substandard medical care was responsible for the death of, on average, one inmate a week.
High court's orders
Last year, the Supreme Court upheld the panel's conclusion that overcrowding in a prison system that held almost twice its designed capacity was the main cause of poor health care. The court ordered the population lowered to 137.5 percent of capacity by June 2013.
The state responded with Brown's realignment program, which in October started shifting lesser felony sentences to county jails and is largely responsible for a drop of 24,000 in the state prison population.
But the pace of that reduction has slowed in recent months, and Brown has not sought to change sentencing laws or endorsed Proposition 36, a November initiative that would limit the scope of the state's "three strikes" law for repeat felons.
Friday's filing was in response to the judges' order Aug. 3 that the state take "all steps necessary" to meet the June 2013 target of 112,000 inmates.
If that target stands, state lawyers said, California's only recourse would be to cancel plans to return about 5,000 inmates from prisons in other states, where they have been temporarily transferred. That would help lower the population to 112,000 by December 2013, they said, at a cost of more than $300 million to the state, while keeping the inmates separated from their families.