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Federal judges order California to reduce prison population

[JURIST] A special panel of federal judges on Tuesday ordered [opinion, PDF; opinion summary, PDF] California to reduce its prison population by nearly 43,000 inmates, finding that the prisons are overcrowded. Two inmates had brought a challenge against the state's prison system, alleging that the overcrowding had resulted in a failure to provide [Los Angeles Times report] adequate physical and mental health care, depriving them of their constitutional rights. The panel agreed, concluding:

Federal courts do not intervene in state affairs lightly. Principles of federalism, comity, and separation of powers require federal courts to refrain from addressing matters of state government in all but the most pressing of circumstances. Even then, federal courts must proceed cautiously, giving the states every opportunity to meet their federal constitutional and statutory obligations voluntarily. Unfortunately, during the 8 years of the Plata litigation and the 19 years of the Coleman litigation, the political branches of California government charged with addressing the crisis in the state's prisons have failed to do so. Instead, the rights of California's prisoners have repeatedly been ignored. Where the political process has utterly failed to protect the constitutional rights of a minority, the courts can, and must, vindicate those rights. We do so here, recognizing the seriousness of our action and with the hope that California's leadership will act constructively and cooperatively, and follow the mandate of this court and the [Prison Litigation Reform Act], so as to ultimately eliminate the need for further federal intervention.

The three-judge panel, composed of Stephen Reinhardt of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Thelton Henderson of the US District Court for the Northern District of California, and Lawrence Karlton of the US District Court for the Eastern District of California, ordered the state of California to submit within 45 a days a plan to reduce its prison population within two years to meet a cap of 137.5 percent of design capacity. The administration of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger [official website] plans to appeal [San Francisco Chronicle report] the ruling to the US Supreme Court.

Overcrowding has been a significant problem for California prisons for many years. California has already begun considering plans to release some inmates early, in light of its current budget crisis. Last month, state lawmakers passed a budget with $1.2 billion in cuts to the prison system, but no specific plan was formulated [AFP report]. The same panel of judges issued a tentative ruling [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] in February, reaching the same conclusion. At that time, state Attorney General Jerry Brown [official website] opposed the decision, commenting [press release], "[t]he court's tentative ruling is not constitutionally justified. Therefore, the state will appeal directly to the US Supreme Court when the final order is issued." 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 health care 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 Schwarzenegger in 2006.

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