The talks are not formally tied to Schwarzenegger's proposal last week to release tens of thousands of low-risk prisoners to save the state money. That plan, which essentially reverses the court position he has taken opposing the early release of inmates, is expected to die in the Legislature, where it would need approval from Republicans who adamantly oppose it.
SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration is exploring a settlement of two lawsuits that would require California to dramatically reduce the number of inmates in its overcrowded prisons -- and limit the Legislature's influence on the issue, according to participants in the discussions.
The settlement discussions in the federal court cases, which have been consolidated, are in an early stage, and the framework of a deal has not been ironed out.
But it could become the basis for a negotiated settlement, prisoners' lawyers said.
The proposal is "a step in the right direction," said Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office and one of the attorneys for inmates in the case. His group is asking a panel of three federal judges to cap the state's prison population.
"We would rather settle this case and have the state do this than have the court do it," Specter said.
Even if lawmakers reject his proposal, Schwarzenegger could implement the inmate releases he envisions as part of a settlement, known as a consent decree, that the judges would approve. That would put extreme pressure on legislators to make the appropriate changes to state law.
Judges overseeing the two long-running federal lawsuits are threatening to order the state to release prisoners, cap the inmate population or both. They must first determine in a trial whether overcrowding is the primary cause of unconstitutional medical and mental healthcare lapses in the state's 33 lockup facilities and, if so, whether there is any other way to fix the problems.
By forging a settlement, the state might prevent a judicial order that could take the prisons out of its control.