Gov. Jerry Brown was wrapping up a speech in Washington on Thursday about the merits of California governance when, during a question and answer period, the subject of state prisons arose.
The Brown administration, which is under a court order to reduce California's prison population, has dramatically cut the number of inmates by measures including shifting responsibility in 2011 for certain low-level offenders from the state prison system to counties.
"There's about 42,000 fewer people in the state prison system than there were just five years ago, so that's a big change," Brown said at a policy conference hosted by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "There's more to be done, and I know there's more to be done because the federal courts have a gun at my head, and if I don't, they're going to throw me in the can."
The Democratic governor is widely expected to run for re-election next year and is by far the favorite to win, but Republicans have hammered him on prisons.
The political difficulty of the issue - if not a shortcoming in Brown's stagecraft - came just as he was about to leave the stage.
"And I want to tell you, reducing the number of felons in prison is not one of those things that you get up and beat your chest about," Brown said. "There are very few people who've run for office saying, 'And if I'm elected, you'll have thousands of felons in your neighborhood.' "
The crowd laughed, and Brown said, "But, it's happening in California."