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California Court Orders State to Cut Prison Population

The tough sentencing laws of the 1990s have had their desired effect. More criminals are in jail than ever before. The problem? Not enough jails and support services such as medical and health care. The solution? Well, according to a California federal court, it is a cap on the number of prisoners California can house in its prison system. The proposed cap requires about 50,000 fewer inmates than the number incarcerated today.

The California prison system was designed to house 80,000 inmates. It now holds 164,000. Two prisoners brought a lawsuit against the state, claiming that substandard medical and mental health care in the prisons constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, which is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. A federal court agreed and ordered California to cap the inmate population at approximately 138 percent of capacity (110,000) within two years.

At the heart of the problem, as usual, is money. California did not build enough prisons to hold all the new inmates it was required to imprison under the tougher sentencing laws of the 90's. What is worse is that it did not provide the doctors and nurses required to provide appropriate medical care for the additional inmates. So merely building new prisons will not be enough to solve the problem. Improved medical and mental health care will have to be provided to comply with the federal court order.

California has appealed the order to the United States Supreme Court, which was recently scheduled to hear arguments on the case. At issue are not only a state's duty to provide appropriate inmate housing and health care, but also whether a state can run its penal system without federal intervention. California also claims that the cap order endangers public safety because it will result in the release of criminals on the street. Approximately 70 percent of inmates will commit further crimes after release, according to the California Department of Corrections. Eighteen other states have joined California's argument to the Supreme Court that the cap order should be overturned.

As the most populous state, California's problem is a harbinger of problems either present or expected in other states. California is being watched closely by other states to see if it can find a solution.