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State Ordered To Cut Prison Population By 40,000

Black Voice News.com, News Report , Chris Levister Posted: Aug 12, 2009

In a historic decision that could dramatically reshape Californias criminal justice system, a panel of three federal judges Tuesday gave Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers 45 days to present a plan to cut the inmate population from about 150,000 to 110,000 or about one-quarter of all inmates over two years. The judges delivered a stern message about conditions that are so poor in some prisons that they violate inmates constitutional rights.

Relying on expert testimony, the judges ruled that the California prison system, the nations largest with more than 150,000 inmates, must reduce its population by shortening sentences, diverting nonviolent felons to county programs, giving inmates good behavior credits toward early release and reforming parole, which they said would have no adverse impact on public safety.

The judges said that reducing prison crowding in California was the only way to change what they called an unconstitutional prison health care system that causes one unnecessary death a week.

In a scathing 184-page order, the judges criticized state officials, saying they had failed to comply with previous orders to fix the health care system in the prisons and reduce crowding. The panel also recommended remedies, including reform of the parole system.

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, the judges wrote. Tragically, Californias inmates have long been denied even (a) minimal level of medical and mental health care, with consequences that have been serious, and often fatal. ... A significant number of inmates have died as a result.

The special three-judge panel also described a chaotic prison system where prisoners were stacked in triple bunk beds in gymnasiums, hallways and day rooms; where single guards were often forced to monitor scores of inmates at a time and where ill inmates died for lack of treatment.

In these overcrowded conditions, inmate-on-inmate violence is almost impossible to prevent, infectious diseases spread more easily, and lockdowns are sometimes the only means by which to maintain control, the panel wrote. In short, Californias prisons are bursting at the seams and are impossible to manage.

This started as a series of lawsuits claiming that the overcrowded prisons violate inmates Constitutional right to medical care through the 8th Amendment, which prohibit cruel and unusual punishment while under confinement.

Its nothing less than an epic failure at all levels of leadership over the last thirty years which has brought us to the point where judges must mandate reductions in the prisons. A state that is unable to manage its finances can also clearly not manage its plainly illegal corrections system, one judge wrote.

The soaring use of imprisonment in California has not been borne equally. Human Rights Watch has shown that African-Americans in the state are incarcerated at nearly 6 times (2,475 per 100,000 versus 421 per 100,000) the rate of whites. Hispanics are incarcerated at 4 times the rate of whites.

The ruling now hangs over the head of lawmakers as they come back from recess in August and determine how to achieve $1.2 billion dollars in savings to the prison system. The Governor and Democrats in the legislature have proscribed various reform programs that would reduce the prison population, change mandatory prison sentences for technical parole violation and create an independent sentencing commission to look at reforming our draconian sentencing policies.

Experts on the states prisons say many of these reforms are desperately needed, would save money for the state and also comprise a smarter, more sensible way to deal with prisons that actually makes Californians safer. They say the ruling makes this not only a good set of ideas, but a mandatory set, given that the state is now under court order to reduce the population.

The Governors Prisons Secretary Matthew Cate is not ruling out appealing the order to the Supreme Court. He claims that the state has a plan to reduce overcrowding that would lower the number of prisoners by 35,000 in two years. Thats less than required by the ruling. But this is no longer an option; unless they appeal and its no guarantee they can, the state must submit a plan to meet the judges dictates within 45 days.

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