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Governor's prison plan seeks more time to reduce inmate population

Schwarzenegger's proposal is submitted to federal judges Friday evening, only hours before the deadline.

September 19, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday evening gave federal judges a road map to reducing state prison overcrowding. But the proposal would take more than twice as long as the judges ordered to make the improvements they demanded and would fall short if state lawmakers did not approve certain provisions, administration officials said.

The plan appears to set up a confrontation between the governor and the judges, who made their impatience clear in ordering the state to forge a plan to reduce the number of inmates by 40,000 within two years. Schwarzenegger's plan would take five years -- if lawmakers sign off on it.

Under a second scenario, if lawmakers balk at more prison changes than they reluctantly approved last week on the final day of the legislative session, the state would retain nearly 23,000 more inmates after two years than the judges have said is reasonable.

There was no indication Friday that legislators were more inclined to approve the proposals the governor included than they were when they dismissed some of the same ideas in recent weeks under pressure from law enforcement groups.

The governor's proposal avoids anything that could be portrayed as a mass release of criminals or that would leave him on a ledge without lawmakers' support. A combination of prison construction and a variety of generally modest steps to reduce inmate numbers, it is limited to maneuvers for which he already has authority or might receive it.

If the judges find that the state's proposal violates the order they issued Aug. 4, they could hold officials in contempt. The judges could also ask inmates' attorneys to present their own plan to reduce overcrowding and order the state to implement it.

State officials said they filed the plan in U.S. District Court Friday evening, hours before the midnight deadline set by the three-judge panel overseeing a pair of inmate lawsuits. U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton and Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that crowding must be reduced because it has caused medical and mental healthcare for prisoners that is so poor it violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The state has appealed the judges' ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The elements of Schwarzenegger's proposal that would not require further legislation would create about 18,000 new prison beds over six years. They would reduce the number of inmates by allowing them to earn more time off their sentences if they completed rehabilitation programs; by reducing post-prison supervision to prevent offenders from returning to prison on parole violations; by sending more inmates out of state; and by attempting to turn some undocumented immigrant felons over to federal custody.

The Legislature approved some of these measures last week; the rest the governor can do on his own authority.

The plan would not come close to the judges' target. Under the second scenario, the proposal would come closer. It assumes that lawmakers might approve some measures the Assembly recently rejected, such as home detention for some inmates and a commission to reexamine state sentencing. It also would require more transfers of inmates out of state, faster construction and other changes.

That would leave the state with almost 18,000 more inmates after two years than the judges specified. The state would meet the required inmate level after five years, and after six years would have 4,300 fewer prisoners than required.

In outlining details Friday, Schwarzenegger's prisons chief, Matt Cate, said the administration had suggested "everything that is appropriate" to relieve overcrowding safely as permitted by existing state law.

"In my view, this honestly demonstrates a good-faith effort to do everything we can," Cate said. "I think that what we've got is a plan that a reasonable viewer will see substantially complies with the court's orders. Do the years match up exactly? Maybe not, but I think it's a good plan."

In a statement, Schwarzenegger called it "a comprehensive public safety plan that cuts [the] corrections operating budget, builds more cells, reduces recidivism and meets court-mandated inmate healthcare."

But lawyers for inmates asked why the governor was unable to present the judges with a plan different from the more comprehensive one he advocated before the Legislature -- unsuccessfully -- only weeks ago. That plan was projected to reduce the prison population by 37,000 in two years, nearly what the court had ordered, but lawmakers adopted only a small portion of it after the Assembly stripped key provisions.

Donald Specter, a lawyer for inmates, said the proposal was "nowhere close to what the court required."

"How can it be a good-faith effort when just a few months ago Mr. Cate and the governor proposed a far more comprehensive package to reduce crowding in one third of the time?" asked Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit legal group based in Berkeley.

Michael Bien, a San Francisco-based lawyer for inmates, called Schwarzenegger's plan disappointing. "It's too little and too late, and it's just not enough of a reduction and it's going to take too long," he said.

The state incarcerates nearly 170,000 inmates, with almost 150,000 in its 33 correctional institutions and the rest in other facilities.


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