[JURIST] A special panel of federal judges tentatively ruled [opinion; PDF] on Monday that California must reduce its prison population in order to relieve overcrowding. Based on the evidence presented, the panel concluded that overcrowding has resulted in the state's failure to deliver constitutionally-adequate mental and physical health care to inmates. The panel found that a release order is the only appropriate remedy [18 USC § 3626] for the unconstitutional prison conditions, stating:
Other forms of relief suggested by various participants are without adequate evidentiary support or appear infeasible as well as incapable of curing the violations presently existing in the California prison system.State Attorney General Jerry Brown opposed the decision, commenting [press release], "The courts tentative ruling is not constitutionally justified. Therefore, the state will appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court when the final order is issued." The release order would mean that prisons could only hold 120-145 percent of design capacity, requiring the early release of an estimated 36,000 to 57,000 inmates. Those opposed to the release order fear that the state does not have the funds for the support programs associated with the release of such a large number of inmates, but the panel asserted that decreasing the number of inmates could save the state $900 million annually in prison costs.
Overcrowding has been a significant problem for California prisons for many years. In August 2008, California's court-appointed prison medical overseer J. Clark Kelso [official profile] asked the court to force the state to pay $8 billion [JURIST report] over the next five years to improve prison hospitals and bring inmate healthcare up to constitutional standards. Two months earlier, a California court had ruled [JURIST report] that the state constitution permitted easing overcrowding by transferring prisoners to out-of-state facilities. The transfers had been ordered in an emergency proclamation [text; JURIST report] issued by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger [official website; JURIST news archive] in 2006.