SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said it will review whether California must cut its prison population by nearly 40,000 inmates to improve medical and mental health care, escalating a legal battle that has been playing out for two decades.
The justices agreed to hear the state's appeal of a court order to reduce its inmate population by December 2011. The state argues that a panel of three federal judges overstepped its authority.
The administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledges the state's 33 adult prisons are filled beyond their intended capacity but says it has been making progress to improve health care for inmates. The case involves lawsuits that stretch back to 1990 and include repeated court findings of intolerable prison conditions that violate the Constitution.
At one point, a federal judge said incompetence and malfeasance in California's prison medical system was the cause of one inmate death per week. The prison health care system has operated under the authority of a court-appointed receiver since April 2006.
"We continue to believe federal judges do not have the authority to order the early release of prisoners in our state," Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Rachel Arrezola said in a statement. "California should be able to take action on its own to keep its citizens safe without interference from the federal courts."
The three judges ruled in August that reducing the number of inmates in California's prisons is the only way to improve medical and mental health care. The system was designed to house 80,000 inmates but was holding more than double that a few years ago.
Since the ruling last summer, the administration has been reducing the population by transferring inmates out of state and making changes in sentencing and parole policies. It has been complying with the court order even as it appealed to the Supreme Court.
In January, the three-judge panel accepted the administration's plan to reduce the population to about 110,000 inmates. As of Monday, about 149,000 inmates were in the system.
Measures include diverting nearly 20,000 criminals to local jails or putting them on house arrest, building a new prison medical unit, and building or retrofitting existing prisons to accommodate more inmates.
The administration plan also includes sending more inmates to private prisons in other states. So far, the state has exported 8,500 inmates.
The administration said some of the steps would require the judges to sidestep the Legislature or state law to meet the court's deadline.
"The court didn't do anything that Governor Schwarzenegger hadn't tried to do through the Legislature," said Don Specter, director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, which represented inmates in the case. "We don't really know why he's appealing, since he recognized that crowding is destroying the prison system and creating a sinkhole for taxpayers."
Specter predicted the judicial panel's order will be upheld because it followed guidelines laid out by Congress before intervening in the state's affairs.
The case will be argued in the court's next term that begins in October. The case is Schwarzenegger v. Plata, 09-1233.