Federal panel could free 35,000 inmates early as decisions cast doubt on $7.9 billion state plan.
By Kevin Yamamura and Andy Furillo - Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 12:00 am PDT Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Two federal judges Monday ordered the creation of a rare three-judge panel to consider a cap on California's inmate population, rejecting assertions that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers have done enough to resolve the state's prison overcrowding crisis.
A prison cap could lead to the early release of thousands of inmates, a move legislative Republicans and the GOP governor vow to fight.
In an attempt to avoid Monday's impaneling of judges, Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers from both parties approved a $7.9 billion bond in April for 53,000 new prison and jail beds. The plan, Assembly Bill 900, also requires the state to enhance its prison rehabilitation programs and allows an out-of-state transfer of up to 8,000 inmates.
But U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento in twin decisions expressed skepticism that the state plan would prove sufficient.
"Given the almost twelve years that this case has been in its remedial phase, and given the constitutional considerations at stake, the direction in which the State has at present chosen to go by enacting AB 900 simply fails to address in any timely way relief from the overcrowding crisis and its attendant impact," Karlton wrote in his decision.
The judges' decisions involved cases in which the state had failed to bring its prison medical and mental health systems into constitutional compliance. Schwarzenegger plans to appeal.
"I'm confident that the steps the state has taken and will continue taking to reduce overcrowding will meet the court's concerns," Schwarzenegger said Monday in a statement. "At the same time, we intend to appeal these orders to ensure that dangerous criminals are not released into our communities."
Michael Bien, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said the judges' ruling moved California closer to resolving its prison overcrowding problems.
"I think it's a very historic step in an effort to bring California's prison system back to constitutional levels," Bien said. "It's out of control. It's plummeting over the precipice."
Members of the judicial panels are appointed by the chief judge of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. One member must be a judge who called for the creation of the panel and one more must come from the same circuit.
The three-judge courts were created as part of the Prison Litigation Reform Act signed in 1996 that was designed to restrict the power of a single federal judge to order early inmate releases from jails and prisons.
Once impaneled, the judicial panels can order early inmate releases only if there had been an earlier finding of a constitutional violation, the defendants failed to fix it in a reasonable amount of time, and overcrowding is the main cause.
Before ordering early releases, three-judge courts must first hold hearings in which intervenors -- including legislators, prosecutors and county jailers -- are allowed to file written arguments and testify. The timeline was unclear Monday.
Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in October, as California faced an overcrowding situation that stuffed 173,000 inmates in prison space designed for about half that number. Henderson noted the governor's declaration as a unique example of how even the state has acknowledged the seriousness of its overcrowding problem.