California Prison Population: Court Orders Cuts (Again)

By Caleb Groos on October 22, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In August, a federal appeals court ordered California to come up with a plan to reduce its prison population. California submitted a plan that came nowhere near the level of reduction ordered by the court. Now that court has ordered California to come up with a satisfactory plan, or the feds will come in and do it themselves.

As previously discussed, in August, a panel of federal judges ordered California to come up with a plan to reduce prison population to a mere 137% of the capacity for which its prisons are designed, within 2 years.

California prisons currently confine an estimated 150,000 inmates, which is 188% design capacity. With current facilities, this means a reduction of over 40,000 prisoners is required.

Why must California trim its prison ranks? Because the court found overcrowding to be the primary cause of prison medical and mental health care so bad that it was found to violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court also found that overcrowding created criminogenic effects in California prisons (meaning the prisons actually produce more crime).

After California's legislature got involved, the plan submitted by the state to the feds fell far short of what had been ordered.

Yesterday, the court ordered California back to the drawing board. It did not begin contempt proceeding for defying its previous order, but the court gave the state 21 days to craft a plan that cuts prison population by over 40,000 in two years, or risk the feds doing it for California.

Additionally, the court demanded that California:

  • Continuously notify the court of any effect that 2009 budget cuts will have on prison medical or mental health services or prison population levels;
  • Explain how it will ensure public safety through reentry and diversionary programs designed to trim the prison population; and
  • Provide the details of the plan which Governor Schwarzenegger initially submitted to California's legislature (which would reportedly have gone further in reforming prison conditions).

If California doesn't submit a satisfactory plan within 21 days? It gets another 14 days to do so, or "the court will be left with no alternative but to develop a plan independently and order it implemented forthwith."

Governor Schwarzenegger says California will continue its appeal to the Supreme Court.

Here is the court's order:

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