Federal Courts to Decide California Prison Overcrowding Issue


With a prison population nearly double its intended capacity, and a state budget hopelessly painted in red, officials in California are being forced to deal with prison overcrowding issues: by mandate of the federal courts.A panel of federal judges has ordered state officials to cut the prison population by 40,000, and to detail their plans for it by Friday. And with the state legislature failing to pass the most recent plan, it increasingly looks like the courts will make the decision for the state.

A riot last month at the men’s prison at Chino injured 175 inmates, and a building on the grounds was burned down. The riot was blamed on conditions stemming from overcrowding. Matt Cate, secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, commented on the overcrowding, saying, “It’s certainly true that when you run a prison system at 190 percent of its capacity, it makes everything, including security, much more difficult.”

The overcrowding is not a new issue. For decades, prisons have been operating past their maximum capacities. “The state should be taking care of this, but they haven’t done anything about crowding for at least 20 years,” said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office, an advocacy group that has sued the state over prison conditions before. “That’s when the federal courts have to step in to protect constitutional rights, in this case after years and years of failure by the state to respond appropriately.”

Recent efforts to cut the prison population have come under fire from state Republicans. A plan submitted by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to decrease the burden by 35,000 was passed by the Senate, but failed in the Assembly, where no Republicans voted in favor of the bill. Even some Democrats broke party lines to vote against it.

Still, without a plan, the courts will decide what California’s next step is. Kara Dansky, head of the Criminal Justice Center at Stanford University, says the courts don’t want to have to make this decision. A state-initiated plan would be preferable, but all signs show that that won’t happen anytime soon.

Whatever the court decides, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation press secretary Gordon Hinkle says, will be appealed in the Supreme Court. “The main argument is that California is equipped to handle its own inmate situations,” he said in a statement.


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