LOS ANGELES — A panel of federal judges ordered the California prison system on Tuesday to reduce its inmate population of 150,000 by 40,000 — roughly 27 percent — within two years.
The judges said that reducing prison crowding in California was the only way to change what they called an unconstitutional prison health care system that causes one unnecessary death a week.
In a scathing 184-page order, the judges said state officials had failed to comply with previous orders to fix the prison health care system and reduce crowding.
The judges left it to state officials to come up with a specific plan within 45 days, saying there was “no need for the state to release presently incarcerated inmates indiscriminately in order to comply with our order.” They recommended remedies including imprisoning fewer nonviolent criminals and reducing the number of technical parole violators.
The order is the largest state prison reduction ever imposed by a federal court over the objection of state officials, legal experts said.
It comes as the state has emerged from a long battle to close a $26 billion budget gap. The latest budget includes severe cuts to social welfare programs, schools and health care. The governor planned to slash spending by reducing the prison population by 27,000 inmates, but law enforcement and victims’ rights groups stopped that.
Attorney General Jerry Brown said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he intended to appeal the ruling. “Eventually, we’re going to have to go to the Supreme Court because I think the California prisons are spending about $14,000 per year per inmate,” Mr. Brown said, adding that the changes the judges ordered would cost more money, which the state does not have.
The special three-judge panel described a chaotic system where prisoners were stacked in triple bunk beds in gymnasiums, hallways and day rooms; where single guards were often forced to monitor scores of inmates at a time; and where ill inmates died for lack of treatment.
“In these overcrowded conditions, inmate-on-inmate violence is almost impossible to prevent, infectious diseases spread more easily, and lockdowns are sometimes the only means by which to maintain control,” the panel wrote. “In short, California’s prisons are bursting at the seams and are impossible to manage.”
Mr. Brown, who is raising money for a possible run for governor, said that some sort of settlement might be negotiated, but he added that he did not believe the court has the authority to cap the state’s prison system.
“California is facing real financial challenges and at the same time the court is ordering standards of care that exceed the standard required under the Constitution,” he said.
The case began as the result of class action lawsuits addressing inadequate medical and mental health care in the prison system. Those lawsuits were resolved years ago. The medical care case ended up with a federal receiver overseeing the system, and the mental health care case with a special master.
“It’s an extraordinary form of federal involvement,” Kara P. Dansky, the executive director of the Stanford University Criminal Justice Center, said of the ruling. “I’m not aware of any other case in which a federal court has entered a prison release of this magnitude over the objection of a state defendant.”
Such federal interventions have become increasingly rare under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which restricts inmates’ access to courts and prohibits federal courts from imposing population caps on prisons except as a last resort.
Prison reform advocates said Tuesday that the state would probably lose any appeal of the reduction order.
“These are cases that have been going on for more than 15 years,” said David Fathi, the director of the United States program for Human Rights Watch. Mr. Fathi added, “The record in regard to constitutional violations is massive, and the judges have tried other less intrusive remedies before.”
Although the state spent millions of dollars on court-ordered changes, the judges ruled Tuesday that the system still violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has shifted between supporting the court-ordered changes and, as state deficits grew and political pressures intensified, fighting them. In June, Mr. Schwarzenegger reneged on a deal with the federal receiver that would have provided $3 billion to build two prison hospitals and renovate other facilities to create 5,000 beds for ill inmates. An earlier plan was for the state to pay $8 billion for 10,000 prison hospital beds.
The governor has also pushed his own prison construction plan and a parole overhaul as ways to reduce prison crowding and to fix inmate health care services without federal intrusion.
But the court pointed out on Tuesday that the state had not committed enough money toward the governor’s prison construction plan and that even if that money was provided, it would take years for the state to build its way out of the overpopulation crisis.
The judges on the panel were Stephen Reinhardt of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and two Federal District Court judges from California, Lawrence K. Karlton and Thelton E. Henderson.