Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday gave federal judges a road map to reducing state prison overcrowding by waiving some state laws to allow sentences to be reduced and new private prisons to be built.
But the governor also disavowed those solutions as illegal.
An initial plan that Schwarzenegger submitted in September was rejected three weeks ago by the three judges, who threatened him with contempt of court for failing to meet their demand for a proposal to reduce the inmate population by 40,000 prisoners over two years.
With his new proposal, the governor appeared to be trying to avoid open defiance of the judges without giving the impression that he is contradicting his opposition to their efforts in an appeal now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The state is arguing that it is improper for the federal courts to intrude into the state’s affairs.
“We’re saying the court . . . doesn’t have the authority to do any of this, but the court obviously disagrees with us,” Matthew Cate, the governor’s prisons chief, told reporters.
The governor said the new plan would open up a total of 42,000 prison beds by December 2011, some through new construction and some by sentencing changes to limit the number of inmates the state incarcerates.
He heeded the judges’ Oct. 21 order to identify state laws that they would need to suspend to meet their goal. But Schwarzenegger also told the judges he did not believe it would be legal for them to waive those laws.
U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton and U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt are overseeing two long-running lawsuits on medical and mental health care for inmates. They have ruled that overcrowding has led to care so poor that it violates the Constitution, and in August they ordered Schwarzenegger to provide a blueprint for easing the crowding.
Some of the governor’s new plan echoes what he submitted previously: reduction in the inmate population through sentencing changes, which would need approval by lawmakers, and construction for which the state already has authority.
But it also includes measures, accounting for more than 25,000 inmates, that the Legislature rejected during the budget fight last summer: home detention with satellite tracking devices for some inmates; permitting some felony offenders to serve time in county jails instead of state prisons; and reducing sentences for property crimes.
Schwarzenegger said that he would renew his plea to lawmakers to approve those proposals but that if lawmakers did not, the court could waive elements of the penal code or order the state not to imprison certain inmates. Cate said the state believes “that it would be an improper order, and we would appeal it.”
“If our appeal is denied. . , we’re going to obey federal court orders or risk sanctions,” he said.
The governor’s plan also says the judges would need to suspend laws for the state to build space for 5,000 new high-security private prison beds in California and contract for the use of 1,500 additional private prison beds out of state. Private prisons in California have been built only for minimum-security inmates.
If lawmakers refuse to authorize new construction, the judges would have to waive portions of the state contracting code, environmental regulations, civil service laws and the state Constitution to allow new prisons to be built, according to the governor’s filing.
They could also allow the state to send prisoners to facilities outside California beyond mid-2011, when its authority to do so expires.
Donald Specter, a lawyer for inmates, said after reviewing a summary of the governor’s new proposal that it appeared to be “in the ballpark.” He said certain details might need to be adjusted, but “this time it looks like it’s a serious effort.”
If the judges determine that the governor’s plan is unsatisfactory, they have said, they will allow lawyers for inmates two weeks to submit a proposal and would then consider imposing a solution on the state.