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Judge Rejects Gov.'s Inmate Transfer Tactic

Sending prisoners out of state to ease crowded facilities is ruled illegal.

360 Have Been Relocated

Decision affects forced and voluntary moves.

February 21, 2007|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A Superior Court judge Tuesday tossed out Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's short-term strategy for coping with the overcrowding crisis in California's prisons, saying the transfer of inmates to other states was illegal.

The ruling by Judge Gail D. Ohanesian, who acknowledged a climate of "extreme peril" in the prisons, comes as the state is under federal order to ease jampacked conditions by June or face a possible cap on new admissions.

Ohanesian said that Schwarzenegger improperly declared an emergency in the prisons and that contracts sending convicts to private prisons in Tennessee and Arizona are invalid.

Two labor unions that represent correctional officers and other prison employees had sued the governor and corrections officials to block the transfers, saying Schwarzenegger's use of the Emergency Services Act was illegal.

The judge delayed enforcement of her order for 10 days, giving the state time to appeal.

In a statement, Schwarzenegger said the transfers were "imperative to relieve the pressure on our overburdened prison system," which is packed to nearly twice its intended capacity. The governor also called the judge's ruling "a threat to public safety."

"Our prison system is in desperate need of repair, and the transferring of inmates out of state is a prudent alternative to the risk of court-ordered early release of felons," the governor said.

Corrections officials said they would be out of room for new inmates by the end of the year, raising the prospect that California's counties -- 20 of which have court-imposed population caps on their jails -- will have nowhere to send convicted felons.

The transfer program, launched in November, was Schwarzenegger's effort to buy time. He has asked lawmakers to review California's sentencing and parole laws, and wants to spend $10.9 billion to add 78,000 jail and prison beds. But his plans face an uncertain fate in the Legislature, and many elements would require years to carry out.

So far, the state has transferred at least 360 inmates, all volunteers, to lockups in Arizona and Tennessee, but corrections officials' goal is to move 5,000. They recently expanded the program to include mandatory transfers, because so few inmates were willing to go.

A separate lawsuit on the compulsory relocations is pending in federal court, but administration officials said Tuesday's ruling affects all transfers.

The moves were initiated as part of Schwarzenegger's October declaration of an emergency in 29 of the state's 33 prisons. The governor said teeming cellblocks had created severe health and safety risks for officers, inmates and the public. In the year before his decree, 316 melees erupted at the prisons, he said.

"The overcrowding crisis gets worse with each passing day," Schwarzenegger said in his declaration. Emergency action is necessary, he added, in part because lawmakers did not act on his proposed remedies during a special legislative session that he called last summer.

In their lawsuit, the prison guards, whose union is the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., accused Schwarzenegger of overstepping his authority.

"We're a nation of laws, and this is an end run around the Legislature," Gregg Adam, a lawyer for the guards union, said after a trial before Ohanesian last week.

Adam also argued that Civil Service protections embedded in the state Constitution forbade the government from contracting out jobs normally performed by state employees. Ignoring such protections, he said, would amount to "the first steps toward privatization" of the prison system, which employs about 58,000 guards and other workers.

In court, the lawyer for Schwarzenegger disputed those contentions, saying the governor "absolutely" acted legally in applying the Emergency Services Act to the prisons. Deputy Atty. Gen. Vickie Whitney also argued that the contracts with out-of-state prisons were so urgently needed that suspension of Civil Service protections was warranted.

"The governor was left with a situation where staff, inmates and the public are in grave danger," so he had to declare an emergency and authorize the transfers, she said.

In her four-page ruling, Ohanesian rejected those arguments and invalidated the contracts with the other states.

She said the Emergency Services Act was meant for use when local jurisdictions became overwhelmed by such events as natural disasters and required state intervention. The act cannot be used, she said, to respond to problems that originated at the state level.

"This emergency is due to ... the lack of sufficient prison facilities to keep pace with the growing number of people sentenced to prison," Ohanesian wrote. "This is not the type of circumstance generally covered by the Emergency Services Act."

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