Supreme Court justices have backed an order to reduce California's prison population by 46,000, a move that some are calling a "judicial travesty."
At the same time, the state's overcrowded prison population is creating "injury and harm" to the inmate population, who are not getting itheir mental and physical health care needs met. The result has been sweeping suffering and death, the higher court ruled today.
"Overcrowding has overtaken the limited resources of prison staff [and] imposed demands well beyond the capacity of the medical and mental heath facilities," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "and created unsanitary and unsafe conditions that make ... care difficult or impossible to achieve."
The ruling stems from the Coleman vs. Brown case, filed in 1990 by a class of mentally ill inmates who sued over inadequate care. Another class action lawsuit was filed in 2001. In both cases, the courts ordered the state to cure the ongoing deteriorating conditions, yet the prisons were becoming more crowded and in 2006, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was forced to declare a state of emergency in California's prisons.
As conditions worsened, a three-panel court ordered the state to reduce its prison population, according to the lawsuit. Meanwhile, the state was reporting one suicide a week in the prisons and increased risk of infectious illness.
The degree of overcrowding in California's prisons is exceptional, Kennedy says. He noted that the state was designed to house 80,000 prisoners, yet the inmate population has exceeded that by 200 percent for the last decade. As a result, prisoners are crammed into areas that are not designed for inmates, and many as 54 inmates share one toilet.
In 2009, the court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by as much as 46,000. Without plans for more capacity or transferring inmates to other states, the only option could be to release inmates before they have fully served their sentences. The state appealed, and today, the higher court ruled against California.
"The release of prisoners in large numbers is a matter of undoubted grave concern," Kennedy wrote. "Yet so, too, is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations."
Hat Tip: Courthouse News
Follow us on Twitter at @SFWeekly and @TheSnitchSF