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California's prison crowding reduction plan gets backing of lawyers

Lawyers for California's sick inmates said Monday they like the Schwarzenegger administration's plan for reducing the prison population and urged a three-judge federal panel to let state officials decide what methods to use.

The plan calls for a reduction in the population of 33 adult prisons to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years, thus meeting the requirement of the panel's Aug. 4 order.

"Rather than ordering the state to utilize particular population reduction methods, the court should leave to the state the discretion and flexibility to choose which methods it uses to accomplish the reduction," the inmates' attorneys said in their response to the plan.

That approach, they said, is consistent with U.S. Supreme Court case law, which cautions against federal courts unduly interfering with the operation of state prisons, and allows the administration to exercise "wide discretion within the bounds of constitutional requirements."

The judicial panel, formed under provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, ruled in August that substandard health care in the adult prisons violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and that overcrowding is the primary reason.

The design capacity of the 33 prisons is 80,000, and the population is 150,000. The court ordered a reduction of 40,000 inmates to a population of 110,000 within two years.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate have made it clear they will appeal the panel's final order, no matter what it says, to the Supreme Court. They insist the Prison Litigation Reform Act does not empower the three judges to dictate the state's prison policies.

The administration would prefer a plan that "reduces the population much more slowly over a greater period of time" and relies more on bond-funded expansion of the prison system, Cate said at a press briefing when the plan was filed Nov. 12.

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