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Ruling blasts California prisons

Wed., Aug. 5, 2009

State told to cut inmate population by 40,000

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A federal judicial panel on Tuesday ordered California to reduce its prison population by 40,000 to improve treatment of ailing and mentally ill inmates, saying there is no other way to bring the system’s medical care up to adequate standards.

“California’s prisons are bursting at the seams and are impossible to manage,” the judges wrote.

The special three-judge panel gave the state 45 days to develop a plan to reduce the number of inmates in the 33 adult prisons from about 150,000 to 110,000 over two years.

About 8,000 additional inmates have been sent to prisons in other states, while nearly 10,000 more are in conservation camps and community correctional facilities.

Judges said the billions of dollars the state has spent on prisons has not kept inmates from dying regularly from suicides or medical neglect. Federal courts previously found the level of care was so poor that it violated inmates’ constitutional rights.

Tuesday’s action formalized a tentative ruling by the panel in February.

The Schwarzenegger administration will appeal but may need to wait until the judges enter a final order, said Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate.

Cate called the order a dangerous precedent that oversteps the judges’ authority. Though he agreed prisons are overcrowded, he said conditions have greatly improved in recent years.

Republican legislators also have promised a separate appeal. Under a 1996 federal law that restricts judges’ actions in inmate rights cases, appeals will go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Donald Specter, director of a nonprofit that had sued the state on inmates’ behalf, called the order historic.

“In this landmark case, the court is requiring the state to run its prison system with a population that it can safely manage, both for the prisoners and the staff,” said Specter, director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Center.

The judges said California can safely cut its inmate population without releasing inmates early through steps like giving them credit for completing rehabilitation programs and not sending parolees back to prison for technical parole violations.

Schwarzenegger has proposed those steps and more in asking state lawmakers to reduce the population of the nation’s largest state prison system by 27,000 inmates to save $1.2 billion.


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