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California Gets to Argue Prison Release Order Before Supreme Court

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California's challenge to a federal court order to release a possible 46,000 prisoners because existing ones were found to be denied proper medical care will hit the Supreme Court in the fall.

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The L.A. Times's take sums up the legal principle at issue and the history of the case so far:

At issue in the case is whether federal judges can cure a constitutional violation in a state prison system by ordering the release of some inmates.

A special three-judge panel decided last year that the state's prisoners were being given inadequate medical and mental health care. Denying needed care to prisoners has been held to violate the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The judges concluded the overcrowding was the "primary cause" of this violation, and they ordered the state to cap the population of its prisons at 137% of capacity. State officials say they would have to release 46,000 inmates over two years to comply with that order....

The governor and a group of Republican state lawmakers appealed the prisoner-release order, arguing that the judges had overstepped their authority....

The case was years in the making, however. U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson in San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento had ruled in separate cases that prisoners were being denied needed medical care. Court officials stepped in and decided to have a three-judge panel consider the state's prison system as a whole. Judge Stephen Reinhardt from Los Angeles, who serves on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, was added to panel.

The judges said last year that they concluded they saw no other remedy than to reduce the prison population. However, they agreed to put their order on hold until the state appealed.

That appeal has now been accepted by the Supreme Court. The Huffington Post's report notes that California's prison system is designed to hold 80,000 but now holds 149,000. The Huffington Post also reports:

The prison health care system has operated under the authority of a court-appointed receiver since April 2006.....Since the ruling last summer, the administration has been reducing the population by transferring inmates out of state and making changes in sentencing and parole policies.

KPCC quotes a prison rights activist who hopes California loses the case:

attorney Don Spector with the Prison Law Office says state officials failed for a decade to improve prison conditions on "on their own. ... then they yell and scream that the courts are infringing on their prerogatives."

Spector's confident the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold the prison population cap he asked for on behalf of inmates.

"I believe the court will affirm the lower court ruling because, in part, the three-judge panel was doing nothing more than trying to do what Arnold Schwarzenegger was trying to do through the legislature," Spector said.

Past City of Angles blogging on state prison overcrowding and the earlier steps in this case of Schwarzenegger v. Plata.

Image associated with this post taken by Flickr user stevesheriw. Used under user Creative Commons license.

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