The administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today gave a special federal court a plan to reduce the number of state inmates by 18,000 — or less than half the amount ordered by the court–within two years.

A three-judge panel had ordered the administration to submit a plan to decrease the population of California’s severely overcrowded prisons by 40,000 in two years. The panel said the reduction was needed to correct “woefully and constitutionally inadequate” health care.

But Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said he believes state officials are acting in good faith despite failing to meet the number ordered.

Cate said the administration plans to ask the Legislature to make additional changes that would further reduce the number and comply with the court’s order within five years.
Cate said in an afternoon news conference, “In my view, this honestly demonstrates a good-faith effort to do everything we can.

“We think we’ve done everything we can legally do under state law that is consistent with good correctional principles and public safety,” Cate said.

Rebekah Evenson, a lawyer for prisoners who sued the state over inadequate health care, said inmates’ attorneys would study the state filing before deciding what to do next.

She said that if contempt-of-court proceedings are initiated against state officials for failing to meet the court’s order, the process could be set in motion by either the prisoners’ attorneys or the court itself.

Evenson said the administration’s new plan appears to be a step back from a previous proposal by the governor to reduce the population by 37,000.

Asked about a possible contempt-of-court proceeding, Cate said, “Ultimately, the courts will decide whether there is substantial compliance” with the order.

The order for a plan was issued in August by a panel made up of two federal trial judges and one appeals court judge, ruling in two long-running prisoner civil rights lawsuits that challenged inadequate medical and mental health care.

Today’s deadline for filing the plan was kept in place when the U.S. Supreme Court last week rejected the state’s bid for a stay. State lawyers said in today’s filing that they are continuing a Supreme Court appeal of the order, however.

The state’s 33 adult prisons currently operate at 188 percent of capacity with 150,000 inmates in facilities built for 80,000.

The three-judge panel ordered a reduction to 137.5 percent of capacity, which would mean 40,000 fewer inmates in the adult prisons.

The state’s filing said that changes already under way will reduce the number by 18,000 within two years. Those measures include parole reform, increased time off for prisoners who complete rehabilitation programs, sending more inmates to out-of-state prisons and providing new healthcare beds outside the adult prisons.

The filing said that additional actions to be sought from the Legislature would reduce the population by nearly 45,000, or 136 percent of capacity, by 2014.

Those changes include accelerated construction of new facilities, alternative community custody for low-risk offenders and creation of a permanent independent commission to review sentencing laws annually.

Schwarzenegger issued a statement saying, “My administration’s proposal to resolve California’s prison overcrowding is a comprehensive public safety plan that cuts corrections operating budget, builds more cells, reduces recidivism and meets court-mandated inmate health care.”

The three-judge panel is made up of U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco, Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento, and Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Under a U.S. law governing prisoner civil rights lawsuits, an order to reduce a prison population can be made only by a three-judge panel and not by a federal trial judge acting alone.

While it has said a reduction is necessary, the panel has not yet issued an order to reduce the population, but rather only an order for preparation of a plan.

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