The proposal was to be submitted the same day to a special panel of federal judges, which in August ordered the state to reduce its inmate population by 40,000 this fiscal year and next. Under the court order, the population in California's 33 adult prisons is supposed to drop to 110,000 inmates.
That would keep the population over the system's designed capacity but is intended to make the delivery of inmate medical and mental health care more manageable and effective. The courts have found that care to be so poor it violates inmates' constitutional rights, prompting the court order.
Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said the department's plan addresses a serious problem in a sensible way.
"We think we have done ... everything we can legally do under state law that is both consistent with good practice for prison system and is consistent with good public safety on the streets," Cate said at a news conference. "I hope that the three-judge panel will see that too."
State officials have been combative recently toward the federal court intervention in the state's prison system, the nation's largest. They have called for the elimination of the court-appointed receiver overseeing inmate health care and appealed the inmate-release order to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was not immediately clear how the three judges on the federal panel would react to the state's plan since it falls significantly short of the court order. In theory, the panel could hold the governor and department in contempt of court, but Cate said he hoped the panel would see the state had met the order in good faith.
The corrections department said it believes the state can move closer to the judges' mark in the years ahead if the Legislature enacts a number of additional changes, including raising the property crime threshold of grand theft and extending the state's ability to send prisoners out of state.
The department estimates its current and sought-after reforms can reduce the inmate population by more than 47,000 by the 2014-15 fiscal year. Without additional legislative changes, the department projects to achieve a smaller reduction of about 35,000.
The plan announced Friday uses a combination of methods to trim the inmate populations. Changes adopted earlier this month by the Legislature to save money in the corrections budget will reduce the population by 16,000 this year.
Under the administration's latest proposal, an additional 2,500 inmates would go to prisons in other states, adding to the 8,000 already sent elsewhere.
Increased GPS monitoring would be an alternative for convicts who violate parole, steering 1,000 inmates away from state prisons in the coming year. The administration also plans to release some immigrant prisoners to federal authorities for deportation, reducing the population by about 600 inmates a year.
Partial relief from inmate overcrowding would come from the addition of 7,600 beds through a prison-construction program previously approved by the Legislature, mostly by converting space in existing prisons.
Sen. George Runner, a Republican from Lancaster who has authored several anti-crime ballot initiatives, said the governor's plan to construct more prisons was a more appropriate response than the judges' order to reduce overcrowding.
"After years of bullying and manipulation of the legal system, and gratuitously intruding in the operation of California's prisons, it is time for the three-judge panel to issue a definitive order so that this matter can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court," he said.
Cate said the state should not only add prison beds, but try a second time to push through reforms that failed to pass the Legislature earlier this month. He said the governor wants to allow lower-risk inmates to serve the last 12 months of their sentence under GPS monitoring, a change that was met by political opposition from lawmakers and law enforcement groups.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called it a comprehensive plan that cuts spending and helps the corrections department meet the federal court's requirement for improved inmate health care. In the past, he has criticized the court-appointed receiver for requesting billions of dollars in spending for state-of-the-art prison hospitals.
"It is outrageous that we spend more on prisons than we do on higher education, health care and other priorities for the state, so we will solve this crisis in a fiscally responsible way," the Republican governor said in a statement.
San Francisco attorney Michael Bien, who represents mentally ill inmates in a class-action lawsuit, said adding beds by building additional prison space does nothing to reduce the inmate population.
It doesn't make sense to spend five years on a construction project when the federal courts have ordered the population to be reduced within two years, he said.
Friday's development marks the latest chapter in a long-running legal fight between the state and inmate advocacy groups over California prisons. The Schwarzenegger administration and Attorney General Jerry Brown have argued that the federal courts are overstepping their authority.