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Is Prison Overcrowding is Unconstitutional?

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The decision of a three-judge panel in San Francisco could result in the release of more than 50,000 California prison inmates. The state’s prison system is in crisis because of severe overcrowding and federal pressure to improve medical and living conditions. The judges will decide if the overcrowding violates the constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.

The New York Times reported that the 33 adult prisons in California now house nearly double the inmates they were designed to hold. Criminal defense attorneys for the inmates say that the crowded conditions lead to increased violence, disease outbreaks, deaths and inadequate mental and health care services. According to The Mercury News, on Dec. 4 defense attorneys asked the judges to order the state to release about 52,000 of the current 156,300 inmates over the next two years.

One of the judges on the panel, Lawrence Karlton of Federal District Court, noted during the hearing that the court has been asked to hand down a serious order that would interfere with California’s right to handle state affairs. However, Karlton also voiced concern about the state’s failure to provide adequate care for the inmates.

Lawyers for the state argue that the release of nearly one-third of the state’s prison inmates would cause an increase in crime and would burden counties that already have tight budgets.

Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said he had seen reports indicating that California’ inmates generally had more felony offenses than inmates in other states. The release of more than 50,000 of these inmates would be a danger to public safety.

Cate told The New York Times that the most serious problem in California prisons is the lack of appropriate space for mentally ill inmates, and the release of inmates would not correct the situation.

Michael Bien, a lawyer for the inmates, said overcrowded prisons are dangerous for prisoners and also puts corrections officers and the public in danger.

Defense lawyers for the inmates do not propose the release of dangerous criminals. The state could achieve much of the necessary reduction to the prison population by not sending people with minor parole violations back to prison.

In August, a court-appointed federal receiver in charge of bringing the California prison system into compliance with the constitution announced that it would take $8 billion to build facilities and fix the prison system.

However, California has a budget crisis, and it is unlikely that funding will be available. At the hearing, Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stated the obvious by saying, “We should start from the premise that there’s not going to be any more money spent on this problem.”

A decision in the case is not expected until 2009. The special three-judge panel is acting for the first time under a 1995 federal law designed to limit the judiciary’s power in inmate rights cases. Any order to release prisoners would almost certainly face an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.


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