High Court Looks at Cal's Over-Crowded Prisons

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on December 01, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The United States Supreme Court has taken up the issue of California's horribly over-crowded prisons. Right now in California prisons, one inmate dies every eight days from lack of medical care. A failure to provide minimum-required healthcare to inmates is a violation of the constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2009, a three-judge panel ordered the state to reduce its prison population, down to 137.5% of capacity, reports The Los Angeles Times. The court determined that the root cause of the inadequate medical care was the over-crowding of the state's prisons. While California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has himself acknowledged the prison over-crowding is an emergency, the state is appealing the decision, calling it "the most sweeping intrusion into a state's management."

The state argues that the mandate to ease the over-crowded prisons will result in a mass release of prisoners that could endanger the public. According to The Times, state attorneys argue the court order to reduce the prison population by about 25% in two years could result in a release or transfer of more than 40,000 inmates. Concerned about the potential effects of such an order on their own prisons, attorneys from 18 other states have joined California in the appeal.

And yet, California prisons are different than other states' and the over-crowding problems are much more serious.

"California has people in prison who wouldn't be in prison in any other state," former George W. Bush administration Solicitor Gen. Paul D. Clement, who represents one group of state prisoners, told The Times. Attorneys for the prisoners suggest that instead of a major release, the state send prisoners to county jails, private prisons, or out-of-state facilities and release only non-violent offenders.

Many legal observers believe the conservative Supreme Court won't uphold the order from the liberal panel of federal judges. Robert Weisberg, a professor of criminal justice at Stanford University, told The Times the court should focus on the long record in the case. The case, beginning with suits by inmates with chronic health and mental health issues, has been in the court system since the early 1990's. It is past time for a resolution.

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