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Time's up for Schwarzenegger on prison plan

The governor must submit to judges today a proposal to reduce prison overcrowding by 40,000 inmates, as ordered. He's likely to offer a mix of old and new ideas -- and to push the midnight deadline.

September 18, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger fought against having to give federal judges a plan to reduce state prison overcrowding, but he lost. The proposal his administration must present by today's court-ordered deadline is likely to reflect a reluctance to take direction from the court.

In recent weeks the governor advocated in vain for lawmakers to ratify a plan that would have helped reduce the state budget and cut the prison population by nearly 40,000 within two years, as a panel of three federal judges has demanded. The judges have acknowledged that the plan would have come close to meeting their requirements.

But with substantial pieces of the budget plan rejected by lawmakers, aides indicated that Schwarzenegger plans today to offer the judges a combination of old ideas and a few things with which the Legislature has already agreed.

For instance, the governor intends to revive a plan to spend billions of dollars constructing new prison beds, an idea that has already been dismissed as unrealistic by U.S. District judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

Although new prisons could relieve overcrowding, the judges have pointed out that despite years of discussion the state has not managed to build anything to house more inmates.

"Any reduction in the crowding of California's prisons resulting from the construction . . . remains years away," they wrote Aug. 4 in ordering the state to produce a plan to alleviate overcrowding.

The judges issued their order after ruling that overcrowding in a prison system that holds nearly 170,000 inmates is causing inadequate medical and mental healthcare. The state has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court will consider the appeal but has denied Schwarzenegger's request to delay submitting an overcrowding reduction plan until the state's appeals are exhausted.

In any case, whether the judges accept the plan or order a different one, the state will not have to implement it until the Supreme Court decides the case.

Aides to the governor and his prisons chief, Matt Cate, indicated that the proposal due today was still in flux Thursday and might not be filed until midnight, the final deadline. They have said it may not meet the court's demands on the number of inmates or the timeline for change.

This week, Schwarzenegger administration officials have -- as ordered by the judges -- discussed their plans with stakeholders such as lawyers for inmates and legislative staff. They gave no indication that the proposal would include several ideas the governor pushed this summer in his drive to cut the state budget. Those ideas were approved by the Senate and rejected by the Assembly. The governor had criticized Assembly members for lacking "the guts" to sign off on them.

Those proposals, the target of severe opposition by local law enforcement groups, included home detention for elderly and sick inmates and those with a year or less to serve on their sentences, as well as changing some felony crimes to misdemeanors so inmates could serve time in county jails rather than prisons.

Administration officials did say, however, that they will include ideas lawmakers did approve. Those ideas included changes to the state parole system to reduce monitoring on low-risk offenders and increase it on higher-risk ones, and cutting down on so-called "technical" parole violations such as failing to show up for an appointment or failing a drug test.

"I got the idea that they were just saying whatever had been passed by the Legislature and very little more," said Michael Bien, a San Francisco-based attorney for inmates in the overcrowding case.

The governor's aides have said he will also propose to the judges turning over undocumented immigrant prisoners to federal authorities for deportation -- which he has already agreed to do as part of the state budget. Schwarzenegger also plans to suggest sending more inmates to less expensive prisons out of state, authority he now has under a declared prison overcrowding emergency.

No matter what Schwarzenegger proposes, the effectiveness of many potential solutions to overcrowding remains uncertain.

The governor's plan to hand off undocumented immigrant prisoners to federal officials, for instance, depends on three judges of the California Supreme Court approving those releases for the most serious criminals.

Reducing parole supervision on less serious offenders could cut the number who return to prison on parole violations. But the prison population could actually increase under the measure if local prosecutors decide to bring new criminal cases against some of those parolees instead, said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford University professor who has studied the state correctional system.

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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