A three-judge appeals court panel heard arguments Tuesday in Sacramento about the transfer of 4,000 California inmates to prisons out of state. Governor Schwarzenegger ordered the transfers a year-and-a-half ago to reduce prison overcrowding. The powerful prison guards union sued to stop them, and won. But the state appealed, and now the case has reached California's Third District Court of Appeals. KPCC's Julie Small reports that if the state loses, it might have to take those inmates back.
Julie Small: Governor Schwarzenegger insisted he had a good reason to send several thousand California inmates to prisons outside the state. California's overcrowded prisons, he said, were a threat to the entire state; a safety threat, a health threat, and an environmental threat. More than 170,000 inmates are packed into prisons designed for nearly half that number. And inside those prisons, you'll find...
Thomas Patton: Conditions of extreme peril that are beyond local control.
Small: That's attorney Thomas Patton, representing the state of California in the prisoner transfer case. Patton says the governor was right to invoke special powers he has under California's Emergency Services Act, and send those inmates out of state.
Patton: The intent of the act is to enable California to address the crisis that imperil its citizens, and I'm hopeful the court will agree with our argument.
Small: But appeals court justice Art Scotland didn't agree; at least, not with some of that reasoning. Scotland said the state ignored language in the Emergency Services Act that limits when the governor can invoke it. That's what lawyers for the prison guards argued. Attorney Greg Adams says the inmate transfers violated state law.
Greg Adams: In order for the governor to be able to invoke those powers, the legislature set out a simple set of criteria that he or she has to follow. And our contention is, in this case, he didn't do it.
Small: Adams says the Emergency Services Act comes into play when a local emergency threatens to overwhelm local resources. But local resources aren't overwhelmed when prisons run by the state have too many inmates.
That being said, the justices on the appeals court panel likened the prison situation to a fire in a state park that threatens the air quality and safety of local communities. Wouldn't it be right for the governor to invoke emergency powers to put out the fire? The three justices will issue a ruling within 90 days.