California's troubled prison system was dealt a setback when a judge ruled the state cannot ease its severe overcrowding by transferring inmates elsewhere.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reacted angrily on Tuesday, saying dangerous convicts might otherwise have to be released early. The administration said it will ask a court to block the order from taking effect while it considers an appeal.
The governor invoked emergency powers in October when he ordered the Corrections Department to send thousands of inmates to private prisons in other states. Two employee unions, including the one representing guards, filed lawsuits alleging the order violated state law.
Superior Court Judge Gail Ohanesian agreed with the unions, saying that while prison overcrowding is dangerous, "this is not the type of circumstance generally covered by the Emergency Services Act."
"Today's disappointing ruling is a threat to public safety," Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "I will not release dangerous criminals to relieve overcrowding. The transfer of inmates is imperative to relieve the pressure on our overburdened prison system."
Schwarzenegger's move also violated a ban in the California Constitution on using private companies for jobs usually performed by state workers, the judge ruled.
California's 33 state prisons were designed for roughly 100,000 inmates but now hold about 172,000, and a federal judge has given the state until June to reduce overcrowding, the AP reports.
Corrections officials had hoped that 2,260 inmates would volunteer to transfer to other states, but only 460 have done so. Earlier this month, Corrections Secretary James Tilton ordered the transfer of up to 5,000 inmates to private prisons in Arizona, Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Those transfers will take place unless the administration's request to temporarily block the ruling is denied.
To fight overcrowding, Schwarzenegger also has asked lawmakers to review sentencing laws and consider an $11 billion (EUR 8.37 billion) prison and jail building program.