The administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, yielding to a court order, late today gave a judicial panel a plan to reduce the number of state inmates by more than 40,000 within two years.

The plan, filed in federal courts in San Francisco and Sacramento, was the administration’s second effort at responding to an Aug. 4 order by a three-judge panel to decrease the population of California’s severely overcrowded prisons.

Matthew Cates, secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said, “We have thoroughly examined the court’s concerns and believe that this plan represents the best option to meet the court’s order.”

In the Aug. 4 order, the panel said reducing the population of the state’s adult prisons to 137.5 percent of capacity, or by about 40,000 inmates, was needed to correct “woefully and constitutionally inadequate” health care.

The 33 adult prisons now house 151,000 inmates in facilities built for 80,000.

The state’s first response in September would have decreased the number by only 18,000. Last month, the panel rejected that proposal and ordered the administration to come up with a new plan or risk having the court develop and enforce its own plan.

The plan filed today would meet the reduction goal with a combination of administrative changes in areas such as parole and changes in state law that would require either action by the Legislature or a court order.

The plan says that if the Legislature declines to amend a law, the federal court could order a waiver or circumvention of the law.

For example, the plan proposes reducing inmate numbers by 11,815 by sending first-time offenders for crimes such as drug possession and receiving stolen property to county jails for a year or less instead of to state prisons.

If the Legislature refused to change the sentencing laws for such crimes, the court could order the corrections department to decline to accept prisoners in those categories, according to the plan.

Cate said in a telephone news conference that the state disagrees with the panel’s rulings and will continue to appeal them, but said, “We are going to obey valid court orders.”
The three-judge panel is made up of U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

Henderson and Karlton are presiding over two long-running civil rights lawsuits in which inmates are challenging inadequate prison medical and mental health care.

Lawyers for the prisoners could not immediately be reached for comment.

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