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Federal judges deny California request to stay prison population reduction order

[JURIST] A federal judicial panel on Thursday denied [opinion, PDF] California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's request to stay an order [text, PDF] to reduce the prison population in the state. The request stemmed from an August ruling mandating that California reduce its prison population [JURIST report] by nearly 43,000 inmates in response to a lawsuit by two inmates alleging that overcrowding in California prisons reduces access to physical and mental health care and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. In its order Thursday, the court found that it has:

been more than patient with the state and its officials. Throughout the proceedings, we have had considerable difficulty in determining their positions, in view of their conflicting representations before this and other official bodies. We are persuaded that it is not in the best interests of all concerned to act as swiftly as possible. Further delays and obstruction will not well serve the people of the state, and will not be tolerated by this court.

Currently at issue is whether the federal panel has the authority to force California to reduce the number of inmates housed at 33 prisons state-wide. The Schwarzenegger administration has indicated it will appeal the panel's original ruling to the US Supreme Court, and Attorney General Jerry Brown filed notice that the appeal will be imminent [Los Angeles Times report].

California has long faced the problem of overcrowded prisons. The same panel of judges that issued the inmate reduction order in August issued a similar, tentative ruling in February [JURIST report]. In August 2008, court-appointed medical overseer J. Clark Kelso asked the US District Court for the Northern District of California to order the state to infuse $8 billion [JURIST report] into the prison system to improve healthcare for inmates. In May 2008, Schwarzenegger decided against a plan [JURIST report] to release 22,000 "low-risk" prisoners to alleviate overcrowding.

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