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By Michael B. Marois – Jul 24, 2013 8:25 PM PT

Six years ago, California lawmakers shook hands on a $7.4 billion deal to build lockups for 53,000 prisoners to reduce overcrowding that was so severe a federal judge threatened to set thousands of convicts free.

Today, just a fifth of the money has been spent, violent crime is rising in the most-populous U.S. state and Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, risks contempt charges for resisting a court order to lower inmate numbers still further.

California Governor Jerry Brown has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a lower court order to trim almost 10,000 from the 119,000 inmates held in the state by the end of the year. Photographer: California Assembly Democratic Caucus/Pool via Bloomberg

Brown has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a lower court order to trim almost 10,000 from the 119,000 inmates held in the state by the end of the year. Brown says the state has already lowered the count by 43,000 since 2006, spent $1 billion on improving care and conditions, and that obeying the order would force the early release of violent criminals.

“There is no question that there were big problems in California prisons such as overcrowding, lack of health care, and lots of other problems,” Brown, 75, told reporters in January. “But after decades of work, the job is now complete. Our prisons are not overcrowded.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy is set to make the decision on whether to let the reduction proceed or put the matter on hold until the full court returns in October from its summer recess.

California’s prison system, one of the country’s largest, once locked up almost twice the number of prisoners that its 33 penitentiaries were designed to hold. The figure is now about 149 percent of capacity. Brown calls the gauge “a somewhat arbitrary figure.”

Federal judges seized control of the state’s prison health system in 2006, saying inmate care was so bad it amounted to cruel and usual punishment and violated the U.S. Constitution.

Cramped Conditions

The judges cited cramped conditions where inmates were lodged in gyms and dayrooms because there weren’t enough cells. They ordered the state to cut the population to 137.5 percent of capacity.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s order to reduce inmate crowding in 2011. That year, Brown came to office, seeking a different approach from the multi-billion-dollar building program.

He pushed fellow Democrats to pass his plan known as realignment — shifting felons convicted of nonviolent, low-level crimes to county jails, or to alternatives such as house arrest and electronic monitoring — then scuttled much of what was envisioned in the 2007 prison agreement.

At the time, the Corrections Department said slashing the program would save the state $2.2 billion annually in new operating and debt-service costs.

Interest Wanes

Public interest in building new prisons and paying to operate them has waned in the six years since the spending plan was approved, said Raphael J. Sonenshein, the executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

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