By Lawrence Hurley and Sharon Bernstein
WASHINGTON/SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court declined on Tuesday for a second time to take up a long-running dispute about overcrowding in California prisons, in a rebuff to the state's Democratic governor who contends the problem has already been essentially fixed.
Governor Jerry Brown had asked the court to overturn a judicial order that requires the state to reduce the prison population to nearly 140 percent of design capacity, either by finding new prison beds or releasing inmates who pose the lowest risk to society.
The governor has moved to reduce crowding more slowly than the judges demanded after years of lawsuits in the most populous U.S. state. Brown said the order could require freeing thousands of inmates before the end of their terms. The suits had said prison conditions were expensive and dangerous.
California prisons have been in the national spotlight for the past year, as officials wrestle with overcrowding and concerns about the state's use of long-term solitary confinement for prisoners with suspected gang ties, which led to a hunger strike this year.
Michael Bien, an attorney who represents inmates in one of two cases behind the overcrowding rulings, called the Supreme Court move a strong message to the state, namely: "Your prisons are still dangerous and broken."
Brown has repeatedly insisted that recent changes have made the prisons safer and improved the medical and mental health care that the courts said were below par because of overcrowding. A spokeswoman expressed disappointment that the high court would not take up the case.
"In the last two years, California has made the most significant reforms to our criminal justice system in decades, reducing the prison population by 25,000 inmates," spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said. "California will continue to build on these landmark reforms."
The cases underpinning the order to reduce crowding have been going on for decades in California. In one, a federal court weighed testimony from prison experts and decided that conditions would improve if the overcrowding were reduced to 137.5 percent of capacity. In 2011, the Supreme Court endorsed the ruling requiring overcrowding to be reduced because of the healthcare issues.
As recently as 2006, the state's prisons held twice as many prisoners as they were meant to house, and inmate bunks were stacked in gymnasia and day rooms along with regular cells.
The prisons in question, with about 120,000 inmates altogether, are now at about 150 percent of capacity.
A panel of three federal judges has ordered the state to reduce crowding further. The state has countered that it is not possible to reduce the population by that much in time to meet federal deadlines, and in June the judges threatened to hold Brown in contempt if the state failed to comply.
The judges handed Brown an olive branch last month, giving the state a four-week reprieve in which it could try to work out a deal to proceed more slowly through more spending on rehabilitation and mental health services while they are incarcerated. But the panel has otherwise refused to budge.
The state has pegged the number of prisoners it might have to free prematurely at anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000, depending partially on whether it can house some of those inmates in prisons owned by private, for-profit corporations. The state already has contracts to house several thousand inmates at facilities owned by the Geo Group Inc, a publicly traded company that, according to its website, runs 96 such facilities worldwide.
In declining to take the case on Tuesday, the U.S. high court did not comment on the case but said it lacked jurisdiction to intervene.
The case is Brown v. Plata, U.S. Supreme Court, 13-198.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington D.C., and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Editing by Bill Trott, Howard Goller, Cynthia Johnston and Prudence Crowther)