California Faces Federal Judges On Prison Gridlock

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tours a California prison where a riot recently took place. i

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (right) tours the California Institution for Men prison Aug. 19 in Chino. After visiting the prison, where a riot took place Aug. 8, Schwarzenegger said the prison system is collapsing and needs to be reformed. Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tours a California prison where a riot recently took place.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (right) tours the California Institution for Men prison Aug. 19 in Chino. After visiting the prison, where a riot took place Aug. 8, Schwarzenegger said the prison system is collapsing and needs to be reformed.

Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images

California officials must tell a panel of federal judges Friday how they plan to cut the state's prison population by some 40,000 inmates over two years. California's prisons now house roughly twice as many men and women as they're supposed to. The Legislature just tried — and failed — to come up with a plan that might've satisfied the judges. Now the court may have the final word.

Last month a riot at the men's prison at Chino, east of Los Angeles, injured 175 inmates. Dozens were sent to the hospital, some with stab wounds, and one of the barracks-like buildings was destroyed by fire. Matt Cate, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said a major cause of the riot was overcrowding.

"It's certainly true that when you run a prison system at 190 percent of its capacity, it makes everything, including security, much more difficult," he said.

California's prisons have been overcrowded for a couple of decades. Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to get a plan through the state Legislature that would have cut the prison population by about 35,000. It passed the Senate but stalled in the Assembly.

"When it comes to criminal justice, it's very, very political," said Senate President Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat.

Despite the court order and California's desperate financial condition, not one of Schwarzenegger's fellow Republicans voted for the plan. In the Assembly, some Democrats rejected it as well — afraid of the finger-pointing that might follow a high-profile crime, Steinberg said.

"Where someone can point back and say, 'See, if you hadn't changed the law, this wouldn't have happened,' " he said. "And of course too many of them running for higher office or concerned about their political futures were not willing to cast the votes for a comprehensive package."

Steinberg may have had Assembly Democrat Ted Lieu in mind. He's running for attorney general and wouldn't even vote for the watered-down bill that was ultimately passed. Lieu objected to a provision that would have let some inmates out a few weeks early if they completed a rehabilitation program.

"Because you're putting very dangerous people back into the communities," he said. "We were doing this simply to try to save money."

The federal court got involved with California's prisons as the result of a couple of lawsuits. The complaints argued that overcrowding made it impossible for inmates to get adequate medical or mental health care.

"The state should be taking care of this, but they haven't done anything about crowding for at least 20 years," said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office, which filed one of the suits back in 1991. "That's when the federal courts have to step in to protect constitutional rights, in this case after years and years of failure by the state to respond appropriately."

But it's not the court's intention to micromanage the California prison system, said Kara Dansky, head of the Criminal Justice Center at Stanford University. She said the court really wants the state to come up with its own plan to reduce overcrowding, but that's going to be tough.

"The Legislature really was not a friend to the secretary of corrections this past week, when it really didn't give the secretary what he needed to go back to the court," she said.

But the state will present something Friday. And whatever the reaction, California will appeal the judges' order to the Supreme Court, said Gordon Hinkle, press secretary for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"The main argument is that California is equipped to handle its own inmate situations," he said.

That panel of federal judges, however, hasn't seen any signs of that so far.

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