Jerry Brown has never considered consistency a virtue during his nearly half-century in California politics.

During his first governorship, he constantly bobbed and weaved — most notably shifting from adamant opponent of Proposition 13 to calling himself a "born-again tax cutter."

Later, Brown told high school students that "for those small minds that slavishly adhere to foolish consistency, their irrelevance is their best reward" and described his "canoe theory" of politics, saying, "If you paddle a little bit on the left side, then you paddle a little bit on the right side, you keep going right down the middle." Eventually, Brown's shifty tendencies were his political undoing as California voters rejected his U.S. Senate bid in 1982. But three decades later, they are on display again in his ever-changing responses to pressure from federal courts to reduce severe prison overcrowding.

For months, Brown had claimed that he had done enough to reduce overcrowding and complying with judges' demands would require releasing nearly 10,000 dangerous felons to prey upon the public.

"Unless stayed, the three-judge court's order will release offenders with a history of serious or violent offenses who are very likely to commit more serious crimes," the governor's lawyers claimed in one filing.

"No data suggests that a sudden release of inmates with these characteristics can be done safely," they said in another filing, "No state has ever done it." U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito picked up on Brown's argument in his dissent, saying, "California must release upon the public nearly 10,000 inmates convicted of serious crimes, about 1,000 for every city larger than Santa Ana." However, while expounding on the dangers of releases, Brown was developing strategies to avoid them. In response to judges' demands, he laid out one alternative that would expand "good-time credits," put some inmates in fire camps, continue using out-of-state prison contracts and speed up releases of elderly and ill inmates.

Those potential steps won plaudits from prisoner rights groups. More recently, they have become critical again because Brown now wants to keep many of the 10,000 inmates behind bars by shifting them into local jails and private prisons.

"We are not going to do a mass release," Brown told the Los Angeles Times just last week.

A few days later, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Brown denouncing his latest response to the court order and demanding that any such plans receive legislative scrutiny and approval.

As Brown duels with the court on one front, he's facing stiff resistance to his latest plan in a Legislature controlled by his fellow Democrats. And no one, except him, knows what he really plans to do.

<i>Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.</i>