U.S. Supreme Court Will Hear California Prison Overcrowding Case


The United States Supreme Court said recently that it will review California’s appeal of a court order that would move or release nearly 40,000 inmates from that state’s 33 prisons, after a special federal court panel ruled last year that overcrowding in the prison system has led to inadequate health care, which violates the constitutional rights of inmates.

This is the latest development in a decades-old legal battle, with lawsuits filed that date back to 1990. These suits include court findings of unacceptable prison conditions with regard to mental and medical health care. One federal judge has estimated that incompetence in the prison medical system resulted in one inmate death per week.

Since 2006, the prison health care system has operated under a court-appointed receiver’s authority.

A three-judge panel ruled last August that the prison system needs to reduce its population in order to improve inmate health care. The California prisons have a total capacity of about 80,000 but has been housing more than twice that number in recent years. Currently, there are approximately 149,000 inmates in the state. In January, the federal judges accepted a plan proposed by the administration to reduce the number of state prisoners to 110,000.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has protested the decision, saying that federal judges should be allowed to mandate the release of state prisoners.

“California should be able to take action on its own to keep its citizens safe without interference from the federal courts,” said his spokesperson, Rachael Arrezola, in a statement.

Now, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear California’s appeal.

California has been complying with the court order, which wants the reduction made by 2011, even while appealing it in the judicial system, in part by making changes to its policies regarding sentencing and parole and transferred some inmates to other states. Its proposal for reducing the inmate population also includes early release of some non-violent prisoners, diverting some 20,000 people either to local jails or to house arrest, building a new prison medical facility, and sending inmates to private prisons located in other states. To date, 8,500 prisoners have been transferred out-of-state. In addition, California plans to retrofit existing structures, or to build new ones, to better accommodate the prison population. These moves have been complicated by an effort to reduce the prison system’s budget in the wake of the state’s recent fiscal shortfalls.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case during its next session, which begins in October.


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