Reporting from Sacramento — A panel of three federal judges Tuesday approved a court-ordered plan submitted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to reduce overcrowding in California prisons by 40,000 inmates within two years.
The judges ruled against the state in August in two lawsuits by inmates who argued that overcrowding was the main cause of inadequate medical and mental health care in the prisons.
Schwarzenegger has appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he was ordered in the meantime to come up with a plan to fix the problems. U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt make up the panel.
They rejected his first proposal in October, saying it did not meet the required population targets or timeline. The governor's next attempt, submitted in November, was acceptable, the judges said. They ordered Schwarzenegger to implement it pending the resolution of his appeal of the case to the Supreme Court.
"We do not intervene lightly in the state's management of its prisons," the judges wrote Tuesday. "However, the state's long-standing failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care to its prison inmates has necessitated our actions."
The nation's high court is expected to decide as early as Friday whether to take up the matter. Schwarzenegger's spokesman, Aaron McLear, said in a statement that administration officials "expect that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear our appeal on whether federal judges have the authority to order the early release of prisoners in our state."
If the state loses, the judges said, officials will have to meet interim population targets every six months, while submitting progress reports, before completing the plan within two years.
Schwarzenegger said in his plan that he would work with lawmakers to approve measures they rejected last year, including home detention with satellite tracking devices for some inmates; permitting some felons to serve time in county jails instead of state prisons; and reducing sentences for property crimes.
The governor also said he would need more prisoner transfers to other states, private prison construction and suspension of Civil Service rules, among other solutions.
If lawmakers refuse to go along, the judges could waive state law and order the measures implemented, Schwarzenegger said. The judges said they would consider waiving laws once the state had shown that other solutions had failed.
In another prison-related conflict Tuesday, state Controller John Chiang told Schwarzenegger's aides that he intends to end forced furloughs for correctional officers this month, prompting a threat from the governor's office to dock other pay from prison workers and make layoffs. The furloughs have been in effect nearly a year and amount to a 15% reduction in pay.
The dispute centers on the governor's appeal of a Dec. 29 order by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch overturning the furloughs for members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. The governor's office said the appeal, filed Dec. 31, triggers an automatic stay of the court decision.
"The controller has overstepped his authority by taking this illegal action during our appeal," McLear said.
But Chiang's chief counsel, Richard Chivaro, contended in a letter to the governor's personnel chief that the type of order Roesch issued can't be appealed. For pay in January, the controller "has eliminated the pay differential and will pay the amount due for all hours worked," Chivaro wrote.
McLear said the state would file an emergency appeal. If that fails, he said, Schwarzenegger will begin cutting other pay union members receive for performing special duties and for retirement, along with instituting layoffs.