Supreme Court Orders California to Reduce Prison Population

The U.S. Supreme Court did the right thing by ordering the state of California to reduce its prison population over the next two years in order to alleviate extreme overcrowding that endangers the health and safety of the state’s prisoners and prison staff, according to the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.

The decision affirms a lower court ruling in two long-running cases in which the medical and mental health care provided in California’s prisons was found to be so deficient that it endangers the lives of prisoners and violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Kennedy cited Governor Arnold Schwarzeneger’s emergency declaration on prisons, which stated “immediate action is necessary to prevent death and harm caused by California’s severe prison overcrowding” and blamed overcrowding for an “increased, substantial risk for transmission of infectious illness” and a suicide rate “approaching an average of one per week.”

“This decision confirms that a state cannot admit to violating people’s basic human rights on a massive scale and then refuse to do anything to correct the situation,” said Kevin Keenan, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “It also provides hope that California, which is known for one of the highest recidivism rates in the country, will finally get smart on crime and sentencing,” said Keenan.

If California made even modest changes in its sentencing laws, state taxpayers would be off the hook for approximately $400 million each year. Currently more than 9,000 people are locked up in state prisons for possessing a small amount of drugs for personal use.

A special three-judge federal court determined in 2009 that severe overcrowding was a primary cause of the constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care provided to prisoners and would only be improved by a reduction in the prison population. The court ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity. The system is nearly at 200 percent of capacity.

According to a new poll, solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents from every corner of the state believe that too many people are imprisoned and that penalties for minor offenses are too harsh.

A copy of the ACLU’s amicus brief is available below.

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Read the ACLU amicus brief