Judges Order Calif. To Cut Prison Population To Address Inmates’ Health
On Tuesday, a panel of three federal judges ordered California officials to devise a plan to reduce the state's prison population by more than 40,000 over the next two years, the Sacramento Bee reports.
The judges argued that the cramped prison conditions resulted in a level of health care that amounted to "cruel and unusual" punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Currently, the California prison system houses 150,354 inmates, nearly double its original design capacity of 79,828.
Although the order will not compel the state to immediately release any of the inmates in its 33 adult facilities, the judges said officials must develop a plan within 45 days to reduce the prison population (Walsh/Stanton, Sacramento Bee, 8/5).
Impetus for the Order
In their 184-page order, the judges said California officials had failed to comply with previous orders to reduce overcrowding and improve the prison health care system (Moore, New York Times, 8/4).
They wrote that overcrowding was the primary driver of inadequate health care in the prison system (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 8/5). They said the cramped conditions often led to violence and contributed to the spread of infectious diseases (Thompson, AP/Los Angeles Daily News, 8/4). In addition, persistent overcrowding "worsens many of the risk factors for suicide among inmates and increases the prevalence and acuity of mental illness," according to the judges (Williams, Los Angeles Times, 8/5).
The judges wrote, "The medical and mental health care available to inmates in the California prison system is woefully and constitutionally inadequate, and has been for more than a decade."
They added, "Tragically, California's inmates have long been denied even (a) minimal level of medical and mental health care, with consequences that have been serious, and often fatal" (Zapler, San Jose Mercury News, 8/4).
The panel noted that since mid-2005, "a California inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days" (Sacramento Bee, 8/5).
The judges concluded that reducing the inmate population would be the most effective strategy to raise the quality of California's prison health care (AP/Los Angeles Daily News, 8/4).
Pushback From California Officials
Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) said the state would comply with the order to develop a plan to reduce overcrowding (Los Angeles Times, 8/5). However, he rejected allegations of inadequate prison medical care, noting that California spends $14,000 annually for each inmate's health care (Sacramento Bee, 8/5).
Brown also said officials planned to appeal the case, possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court (New York Times, 8/4).
During the latest round of budget negotiations, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) floated the idea of reducing the state's prison population by 27,000. The governor said the move would reduce state spending by $1.2 billion (AP/Los Angeles Daily News, 8/4).
The proposal encountered opposition from Republican lawmakers and ultimately was not included in the final budget revision package signed last week.
However, legislators are set to reconsider the plan when they return from summer recess later this month (San Francisco Chronicle, 8/5). The measure's approval would require only a simple majority vote, meaning that it could pass without the support of Republican lawmakers (Los Angeles Times, 8/5).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.