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."
Some of Beard's current views conflict with his previous testimony to the federal judges, said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office.
Beard, who at the time was secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, testified in 2008 that he considered 3,300 inmates to be the upper limit for a manageable prison. California prisons still house an average of 3,600 inmates, although Beard said he didn't realize then that California subdivides its prisons into smaller and more manageable units.
Four years ago, he cited California prisons' high suicide rate as one indication of a dangerously crowded system.
Now Beard argues that a federal court also should end its oversight of mental health care, even though a court-appointed special master reported last week that inmates are dying by suicide at the rate of one every 11 days, substantially exceeding the national average for state prisons.
Prison officials have taken steps to prevent suicides and get swifter treatment for seriously mentally ill inmates. Many of the remaining problems, Beard argued, are in meeting bureaucratic standards.
Beard was a member of an expert panel that in 2007 advised California prison officials on ways to improve prison and parole programs. He said he had no interest in becoming secretary then because the system was so crowded it could not adopt many of the experts' recommendations.
"I saw this big system that back in the 1970s used to be at the pinnacle of corrections. ... And then you saw what happened to the system based on the severe overcrowding," he said. "Things suffered."
The prison crowding resulted, in part, from numerous tough-on-crime sentencing laws, many of them approved by voters, that were implemented without any way to pay for the space needed to house the additional convicts.
The federal court order applies to the state's 33 adult prisons, which now hold about 119,000 inmates, down from 153,000 four years ago. The level set by the judges would cap the population at about 110,000 inmates.
Thousands more are in firefighting camps and private prisons, including nearly 9,000 in private prisons in other states. Brown plans to bring those out-of-state inmates back to California prisons starting in July.
Beard recalled testifying about the state's "lack of political will" to reform, until the courts forced improvements. That means the department now can revive rehabilitation programs that largely died because of crowding and budget cuts, he said.
He also hopes to deal with the department's frequent practice of locking inmates in their cells for weeks at a time after fights between inmates.
"Now there's a way to make a difference," he said.