California must shrink the population of its teeming prisons by nearly 43,000 inmates over the next two years to meet constitutional standards, a panel of three federal judges ruled Tuesday, ordering the state to come up with a reduction plan by mid-September.
The order cited Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's own words when he proclaimed a state of emergency in the corrections system in 2006 and warned of substantial risk to prison staff, inmates and the general public, saying "immediate action is necessary to prevent death and harm."
Tuesday's ruling heightens the stakes for a legislative debate over prisons that will take place later this month. As part of the agreement to close the state's $26-billion budget gap, the governor and lawmakers agreed to cut $1.2 billion from the prisons budget, but postponed decisions on how to hit that goal.
The governor and most legislative leaders back a plan that would reduce prison populations by as many as 37,000 over the next two years using a combination of early releases, changes in parole policies and shifting of some prisoners to county jails.
Debate on that plan will be contentious, with many Republicans opposed. But the judges' ruling means that defeating the plan would not only unravel a major piece of the budget agreement but also potentially cede decision-making over prison policies to the federal courts.
The 185-page opinion follows a trial last year and nearly 14 years of deliberations over lawsuits brought by inmates alleging cruel and unusual punishment, which moved the state case into federal jurisdiction. The opinion accuses the state of fostering "criminogenic" conditions that lead prisoners and parolees to commit more crimes, feeding a cycle of recidivism.
"The constitutional deficiencies in the California prison system's medical and mental health system cannot be resolved in the absence of a prisoner release order," the judges concluded.
They stopped short of issuing a release edict, though, giving state officials 45 days to come up with their own plan for reducing overcrowding while observing that alternatives to release, such as building new prisons, were "too distant" and unlikely to be funded.
Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said the state would comply with the order to produce a plan, but repeated criticism that the judges had ignored significant improvements made in recent years.
He said he doubts the U.S. Supreme Court, to which state officials could appeal any release order, would find that current prison conditions violate the Constitution.
"The courts are ordering the state to come up with a plan to release all these prisoners, but the question is: Which prisoners? Release to what -- halfway houses, GPS monitoring? And what happens when they commit another crime -- do they come back? There's a lot that is not clear," Brown said.
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate said he hoped the judges would back down if state officials and lawmakers make progress in reducing the state's prison population this month, as planned.
The administration's proposal to cut the inmate population by 37,000 over two years could be approved by the Legislature with a majority vote -- meaning no support would be needed by conservative Republicans who threatened to scuttle last month's budget deal if prisoner releases were included.
The governor's plan would allow the state to place on home detention prisoners with less than a year left on their sentences and those who are elderly or infirm. It would also change sentencing and parole rules to reward those who show evidence of rehabilitation.
But Schwarzenegger may be reluctant to use the courts as a hammer to push his plan through. Administration officials have repeatedly said that the court has overstepped its boundaries. The overcrowding problem, Cate said, is a state problem that needs to be fixed by the governor and lawmakers.
"It is not the job of the federal court to do this," he said.
Noting the legislative session that begins in two weeks, Prison Law Office Director Donald Specter, who brought the prisoners' suits, said lawmakers now face the choice of being "part of the solution or continuing to be part of the problem."
Specter emphasized, as did the judges, that the ruling "doesn't mean that 40,000 prisoners are going to walk out of prison tomorrow."
"If done right, this could be a win-win situation for the entire state, as the prisons will be safer for my clients and the staff who work there, taxpayers will save hundreds of millions of dollars a year and communities will be safer as a result," Specter said, pointing to the judges' opinion that prison conditions contribute to repeat offenses.
The judges capped the prison population at no more than 137% of the designed capacity of 84,000. That would mean release of 42,920 inmates to meet the population ceiling of 115,080.
Some lawmakers welcomed the ruling while others vowed to fight it.