"We really are out of time, and we're out of room. So we've got to get this done," said Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
As affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court last month, California must reduce its overcrowded prison population so that healthcare meets constitutional standards: 10,000 by late November, and another 23,000 in two years.
In response to the reduction order, the state outlined a plan to shift thousands of inmates to county jails.
The problem is that paying for it is contingent on the temporary tax hikes Governor Jerry Brown wants to extend for five more years under Assembly Bill 109, a move that Republicans refuse to approve.
"If 109 is not funded, and if 109 is not implemented, then we're in trouble," said Cate.
Critics say the shaky funding will not satisfy the court, which noted California has had decades to fix the overcrowding problem.
"If California comes back to the three-judge panel with another plan that says, 'Hey, we're hopeful for some magical funding.' I think the judges are going to say, 'Get real. Denied,'" said Matt Gray, a lobbyist for Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety.
Without a real solution and only five months to meet the first deadline, a scary option is on the table. Cate confirmed the court is able to order releases.
Even if the state legislature comes up with the money to shift some low-level offenders to county jail, Republicans say the plan is dangerous.
Many county jails are already crowded and some jurisdictions will have to release their own inmates early to make room for the state prisoners.
"The prison plan relies heavily on dumping inmates and parolees into our communities and putting our citizens at risk," said state Assemblyman Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), a former parole board member.
Cate also talked about deporting prisoners who are illegal immigrants. But that would involve shortening their sentences to start the deportation process. The Brown administration is not willing to go there yet.