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Jerry Brown's George Wallace moment on prisons

The fight between many states and the federal government over carrying out the health-care law figured to be the most significant states' rights blowup of the decade. Yet the most colorful battle of this sort may be taking place here in California over prison overcrowding.

Jerry Brown, the quirky progressive governor, is defying the orders of three liberal federal judges to release thousands of criminals in order to relieve chronic overcrowding. The rhetoric is growing more heated as the state defies a special judicial panel that recently rejected Brown's attempt to delay the releases and used harsh language in doing so: “Despite our repeated efforts to assist defendants to comply with our Population Reduction Order, they have consistently engaged in conduct designed to frustrate those efforts.” In picking up the states' rights banner, Brown finds himself being compared to Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace, who in 1963 defied a federal order to desegregate the state's schools. But some see Brown as a hero.

In California, the federal government might order marshals to open the cell doors and Brown could stand in a cell, argued Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton. “Wallace was shamefully standing in the schoolhouse door trying to protect a university's bigotry from integration by black students,” Skelton wrote. “Brown would be heroically protecting citizens from thugs.” The governor isn't just resisting the justices. He is poking his finger in their eye after a series of federal court rulings — including one from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 — that require the state to reduce its prison population. The Brown administration responded with a “realignment” program, which sent thousands of inmates to county jails as a way to save money and comply with the federal orders.

Like it or not, realignment was a defensible policy. But the administration didn't stop there. It launched what Jonathan Simon, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, labeled “an offensive against the courts with the self proclaimed objective of re-establishing 'full state control' over the prison system.”

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