SACRAMENTO — Three federal judges on Wednesday forcefully rejected a Schwarzenegger administration proposal to ease prison overcrowding, threatening to impose their own plan for reducing the inmate population if the state does not submit an acceptable one within three weeks.
The panel said California officials had failed to comply with their order to produce a plan to pare the number of state prisoners by 40,000 within two years. The judges agreed to postpone a decision on a request by inmates' lawyers to hold Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in contempt of court for defying the earlier order, issued Aug. 4.
The state's plan, submitted Sept. 18, also failed to specify how much lower the number of inmates would be after six, 12, 18 and 24 months, as the judges had demanded.
"We will view with the utmost seriousness any further failure to comply with our orders," said the seven-page decision by U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt. That would leave the court "with no alternative but to develop a plan independently and order it implemented forthwith."
A Schwarzenegger spokeswoman, Rachel Arrezola, said the state would respond to the order by its Nov. 12 deadline. She said the administration is continuing to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court the judges' "arbitrary" reduction order. That appeal was filed last month.
Wednesday's developments raise the possibility that the federal courts will again seize power from state officials. In 2006, Henderson took over the system of inmate medical care from Schwarzenegger and handed it to a receiver, who reports directly to the judge.
"The court is basically saying, 'Do we have to take control of this away from you too? It's your responsibility,' " said Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in Berkeley, which represents some of the inmates whose lawsuits have led to the judges' orders.
Although courts have capped the population of local jails and prisons in other states, no federal panel has ordered a population reduction over a state's objections under a 1996 federal law that made it harder for such actions to take place, according to Michael Bien, another lawyer for inmates.
California's case could be the first to test that law before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The push to reduce overcrowding stems from the judges' ruling in a pair of inmate lawsuits. The judges said the teeming conditions of the state prison system, which contains nearly 170,000 people, is the main cause of medical and mental health care so poor that it violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Inmates have long been stuffed into dormitories, hallways and other makeshift living spaces in institutions so strapped that Henderson once said nearly an inmate a week was dying needlessly.
Schwarzenegger has acknowledged that the prison system is in crisis and that overcrowding should be reduced. But he has fought the oversight of federal judges, telling reporters Wednesday that they have run amok on a host of issues besides prisons, including state budget cuts and the protection of endangered species.
"They are going absolutely crazy," Schwarzenegger said. "They've got to let us run the state."
The plan the governor gave the judges last month to reduce overcrowding would have cut the prison population by about 18,000 after two years, less than half of what had been ordered. It also relied heavily on the construction of new prisons, even though the judges had previously discounted that option because the state had proved unable to move ahead on such plans for the last two years. Matthew Cate, the governor's corrections chief, said the administration's plan reduced the prison population only as much as state officials felt they could manage safely.
But the judges, in their order Wednesday, pointed out that Schwarzenegger had previously advocated a more far-reaching plan to reduce the number of inmates -- by 37,000 over two years -- with a variety of measures including home detention and sentencing changes. The governor and Cate had said that plan, which was approved by the state Senate but stalled in the Assembly, would not endanger public safety.
"That such a plan was submitted by the governor was widely reported by the press, including in an article written by defendant Matthew Cate," the judges wrote.
They ordered the state to provide information on the legislative plan, suggesting that they could impose parts of it if the state does not come up with an alternative.
The judges also faulted the state for relying on inmate rehabilitation programs to reduce overcrowding even as it was preparing to announce a $250-million-a-year budget cut in those same programs. And they told state officials to inform them of any future budget cuts that could affect overcrowding.
If state leaders do not present an acceptable plan, the judges said, they will give inmates' lawyers two weeks to propose a solution as well before imposing one on their own.
Bien said he hoped the state would take the reins. By investing in community-based rehabilitation programs and other measures, he said, officials could in one stroke improve public safety, save money and "address the plight of my clients, who live in these horrific conditions of overcrowding."