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Court orders California to lessen prison population

posted 23 May 2011, 14:43 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 23 May 2011, 14:44 ]

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld an order requiring California to reduce its prison population by approximately 40,000 inmates.

WASHINGTON, D.C., UNITED STATES REUTERS - The Supreme Court upheld on Monday (May 23) an order that California fix longtime problems with inadequate medical and mental health care at its overcrowded prisons, which will force an unprecedented release of some 40,000 inmates.

By a 5-4 vote, the justices rejected California's appeal and upheld a federal lower-court order that required the nation's largest state prison system to sharply cut its inmate population in stages over two years.

The court-mandated population limit is necessary to remedy the violation of prisoners' constitutional rights and was authorized by a 1995 federal law, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the Supreme Court majority.

California's 33 adult prisons were designed to hold about 80,000 inmates but currently have about 145,000 and the state was ordered to release some 40,000 to get down to what court officials feel will be a reasonable level. It was the largest prisoner release order ever from a federal court.

Improving conditions in California's prisons has become a major legal, political and budget issue in view of the worsening budget crisis in the nation's most populous state.

The ruling involved two class-action lawsuits by inmates who challenged the inadequate medical and mental health care conditions in the state's sprawling prison system.

In the opinion, Kennedy said the lower court must remain open to possible appropriate modifications of its order, but emphasized that he found valid the basic premise behind the order to sharply cut the inmate population.

"The medical and mental health care provided by California's prisons falls below the standard of decency" required by the U.S. Constitution, Kennedy concluded.

The court's four most conservative justices dissented. In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the Supreme Court had upheld "what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history."