SAN FRANCISCO — A federal court panel sent state authorities back to the drawing board to draft a new plan to address California’s prison overcrowding problem after rejecting a proposal from Gov. Schwarzenegger that would have cut the prison population by 20,000 inmates over two years.
The federal panel is demanding California officials draw up a plan to reduce the total prison population by about 40,000 over two years to relieve overcrowding and improve conditions or face the imposition of a plan developed by the court.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation houses more than 155,000 inmates at 33 prisons throughout the state. The system is operating at about 200 percent of its 80,000-bed design capacity.
The three-judge panel said it was unaware of any excuse for the state’s failure to comply with the order to draft an overcrowding relief plan. Although the panel resisted the requests of plaintiffs’ lawyers to hold the state and Gov. Schwarzenegger in contempt of court, it warned that any further instances of noncompliance on the part of the state would be viewed with the utmost seriousness.
The panel members are U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento and Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In August, the panel found that prison overcrowding was the primary factor contributing to substandard inmate healthcare, which violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, according to a court ruling.
In 2006, Judge Thelton Henderson, presiding over a class-action lawsuit that challenged standards of inmate medical care, established a federal receivership to manage the state prison health system. Henderson concluded substandard care was responsible for inmate deaths that were occurring at the rate of one per week.
State officials, who continue to question the basis of the federal panel’s involvement as unnecessary and unconstitutional, reject the panel’s findings and rulings as impractical and unsafe. They criticize the panel’s population cap as arbitrary, and reiterated their determination to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state’s appeal argues the federal courts do not have the authority to impose population reductions on California’s prison system.
Previously, the federal court ruled that the specified 40,000-inmate reduction in the prison population can be achieved in an orderly, incremental and safe manner through the introduction or expansion of early-release credit programs and diversion of low-risk offenders to alternative sanctions and community-based treatment.
California’s latest proposal would achieve reductions of only 20,000 inmates over the required two-year period, taking five years to reach the court-mandated objective of 40,000 inmates and requiring the passage of legislation previously rejected by state lawmakers.
An earlier Schwarzenegger proposal that would have reduced the prison population by 37,000 over two years through the implementation of a series of similar early release, diversion and parole reform measures, plus expanding out-of-state inmate transfers and construction of new beds, did not garner enough support among state legislators.