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Today's the day that officials here in California must tell a panel of federal judges just how they plan to cut the state's prison population by some 40,000 inmates. California's prisons are now filled with roughly twice as many men and women as they were built for. State lawmakers tried and failed to come up with a plan that might've satisfied the judges. Now, as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, the court may have the final word.

INA JAFFE: 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. 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.

Secretary MATT CATE (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): 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.

JAFFE: But this is not a recent problem. California's prisons have been overcrowded for a couple of decades. Last week, Governor 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.

State Senator DARRELL STEINBERG (Democrat, Sacramento): I mean, when it comes to criminal justice, it's very, very political.

JAFFE: Say Senate president, Democrat Darrell Steinberg. Despite the court order and California's desperate financial condition, not one of Schwarzenegger's fellow Republicans voted for the plan. And in the Assembly, some Democrats rejected it as well, says Steinberg, afraid of the finger-pointing that might follow a high-profile crime.

Senator DARRELL STEINBERG: Where someone can point back and say, See, if you hadn't changed this law, this wouldn't have happened. 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 more comprehensive package.

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

Assemblyman TED LIEU (Democrat, California): Because you're putting very dangerous people back into the communities. We were doing this simply to try to save money.

JAFFE: 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. Don Specter is the executive director of the Prison Law Office, which filed one of the suits back in 1991.

Mr. DON SPECTER (Prison Law Office): The state should be taking care of this, but they haven't done anything about crowding for at least 20 years. So 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.

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

Ms. KARA DANSKY (Criminal Justice Center, Stanford): 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.

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

Mr. GORDON HINKLE (Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): The main argument is that California is equipped to handle its own inmate situations.

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

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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