Calif. gov. bristles at releasing more prisoners

California Governor Jerry Brown is asking the Supreme Court to intervene in a battle over the state's prison population.

A federal court has ruled the state's prison system is over-crowded, and it's ordered thousands of prisoners to be released by the end of the year.

Over the years, California has sent far more criminals to state prisons than it has room for.

California's prisons are built to accommodate 80,000 prisoners, but there are almost 120,000.

"Yeah, but that's because of the way you count," said Jeff Beard, who heads the California prison system.

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The state has cut the number of inmates by 25,000, but a panel of federal judges has ordered 9,000 more released by the end of the year. The state has taken the feds to court.

"Because we don't believe that we have to further reduce the inmate population," said Beard, adding that there is "absolutely not" 9,000 prisoners in the state that could be let go while keeping Californians safe.

The federal judges are monitoring California prisons partly because of a lawsuit brought by San Francisco attorney Michael Bien.

He calls it group therapy for mental health reasons, but they're locked in cages. He has been fighting for years to improve conditions for inmates in need of mental health treatment.

Showing pictures of those inmates in need of help to judges seemed to have some impact on the judges.

"Well, apparently the judges may not like that, but the reality is that you're dealing with people in prison who sometimes don't always behave!" Beard said.

Whether California is behaving, the Supreme Court may ultimately decide.

Beard insists the overcrowding is not cruel and unusual punishment.

"I would not manage a system that was being run in a cruel and inhuman way," Beard said.

Bien said he and his legal team are not arguing that many of those they're fighting for are innocent.

"We make no bones about what they've done or if they need to be punished, but they also need to be treated in a fair and humane way," Bien said.

As for the picture of what's fair and humane, that may be in the eye of the beholder.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.