SACRAMENTO -- A special panel of federal judges tentatively ruled Monday that California will have to release tens of thousands of inmates to relieve overcrowding over the next several years.
The judges said no other solution will improve conditions so poor that inmates die regularly of suicides or lack of proper care.
The panel said it wants the state to present a plan to trim its prison population in two to three years.
"There are simply too many prisoners for the existing capacity," they wrote in a 10-page order. "Evidence offered at trial was overwhelmingly to the effect that overcrowding is the primary cause of the unconstitutional conditions that have been found to exist in the California prisons."
The three judges did not set a final population figure, but suggested a target of between 100,800 and 121,000 inmates -- down from the current population of about 158,000 in 33 adult prisons. More inmates are housed in conservation camps, community correctional facilities and private prisons in other states.
Reaching the proposed targets would require the state to reduce the population by between 36,200 and 57,000 inmates. Attorneys representing inmates had sought a reduction of about 52,000 inmates.
The San Francisco-based panel said it may hold more hearings before making the decision final.
The state will appeal any final prisoner release order to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
"We disagree with the ruling. We disagree that the prisons are unsafe. We will appeal," Cate said, speaking on behalf of himself and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Releasing that many inmates is "the equivalent of between seven and 10 California prisons."
State Attorney General Jerry Brown called the order "a blunt instrument that does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed." He also promised an appeal.
The state can safely cut its inmate population through changes in parole and other policies without endangering public safety, the judges said.
Reducing the prison population "could be achieved through reform measures that would not adversely affect public safety, and might well have a positive effect. This is particularly true considering that California's overcrowded prison system is itself, as the Governor as well as experts who have testified before the Court have recognized, a public safety hazard," the judges said.
The order came less than a week after the judges finished hearing two days of closing arguments.
The judges said then they wanted to quickly issue a tentative ruling in hope of forcing the state to take steps on its own or reach a settlement with attorneys representing inmates. Previous negotiations failed, forcing the trial that took place over 14 days in November and December.
Sen. George Runner of Lancaster, the Senate's Republican Caucus chairman and the caucus' lead intervener in the court case, said the GOP legislators also would appeal a final ruling ordering inmate releases. And he ruled out any settlement with plaintiffs' attorneys.
But Nick Warner, spokesman for both the state sheriffs' and chief probation officers' associations, said law enforcement and the state should negotiate rather than bet that the nation's high court will throw out the inmate release order.
"I think real serious discussions have to be had by everyone involved, weighing the risk of the wrong answer from a higher court against the public safety concerns," said Warner, whose groups also opposed an inmate release.
Michael Bien, one of the attorneys representing inmates, said he had hoped the administration would reconsider its position in light of the panel's tentative ruling.
"It seems to be a comprehensive victory for the plaintiffs," Bien said. "There's no other relief that can address this problem."
Alternatives suggested by the state during the trial would take years too long, or end up being blocked by the Legislature or administration, Bien said.
The order comes as California struggles to bridge a $42 billion budget deficit that is forcing the state to furlough its employees two days each month.
The judges acknowledged Monday that "California, like most other states, is in the throes of an unprecedented economic crisis" and that already-overwhelmed local police, courts and rehabilitation services don't have the money to handle thousands of ex-convicts.
But, the judges noted, an expert panel convened by California corrections officials has projected the state could save $803 million to $906 million annually if it made it tougher to send parolees back to prison for technical parole violations and made it easier for convicts to earn early release credits by taking classes and vocational programs. The state could divert a portion of that savings to counties, they said.
"It appears from these figures that the State could easily fully fund all the community rehabilitative and other programs ... without expending any funds other than those regularly provided in the prisons budget," the judges wrote.
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