California Ordered To Reduce Prison Population

A divided U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that California must dramatically reduce its prison population. The justices found that overcrowding in the state's prisons violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

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A divided U.S. supreme court has ordered California to dramatically reduce its prison population. The justices, who were split five to four, found that overcrowding in California prisons violates constitutional protects against cruel and unusual punishment. Now California will have to figure out how to implement a ruling that affects almost a quarter of the state's inmates. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports from San Francisco.

RICHARD GONZALES: There are more than 143,000 inmates in California state prisons, and under the ruling, about 33,000 will have to be transferred to another jurisdiction or released. In the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, living conditions are toxic and they cause needless suffering and death.

Those were gratifying words to Don Spector, who directs the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office. He first sued California prison officials back in 1990.

Mr. DON SPECTOR (Director, Berkeley-based Prison Law Office): You have grossly psychotic prisoners who are not being treated in an appropriate setting because there's no room for them, literally no room. Prisoners with serious medical conditions, such as cancer, can't get access to the physicians in a timely manner, so that they end up dying. Prisoners in overcrowded dormitories die and nobody knows about it for hours because of the crowding.

GONZALES: But if overcrowding is the problem, then reducing the prisoner population isn't the solution, said Justice Antonin Scalia, who read his dissent aloud. He said the ruling will put a staggering number of convicted felons on the street, adding that terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order.

Mr. JIM NIELSEN (Republican, California State Assemblyman): I agree with Justice Scalia...

GONZALES: California State Assemblyman, Jim Nielsen, a Republican, chaired the Board of Prison Terms for nearly a decade. It's the body that decides who gets or doesn't get released on parole. He says the Supreme Court ruling makes it a sad day for America.

Mr. NIELSEN: It's probably the most radical injunction issued by the court in our nation's history. And this radical injunction results in people being victims.

GONZALES: Nielsen fears inmates will be released onto the streets. But, it's not at all clear that the ruling means an opening of the prison gates. The decision comes as California, under severe budget pressure, is trying to avoid sending so many people to state prisons. Governor Jerry Brown already has a plan, approved by the legislature, known as realignment. It means moving tens of thousands of low-level offenders from state prisons to local county jails.

Mr. MATTHEW CATE (Secretary, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): Well, I think our goal is to not release inmates at all.

GONZALES: Matthew Cate is the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He says violent offenders, like murderers and rapists, would stay in state prisons. But parole violators and non-violent offenders would be moved to local county jails.

Mr. MATTHEW CATE (Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): If re-alignment is done quickly, and fully, and as the Governor has proposed, I think it will solve quite a bit of this problem. Not through releases, but through future diversions.

GONZALES: Governor Brown knows the success of his re-alignment plan depends on whether the state will provide local counties with new money to handle these low level offenders. And right now, the plan is stalled as lawmakers wrangle over the state budget. The other problem is time. The Supreme Court gave California two weeks to offer its plan for reducing its prisoner population and two years to achieve it. However, the Court gave the state a little wiggle room. If it can show a lower court its making progress, it could ask for additional time. And it's likely it will have to do that. Secretary Cate says the Governor's realignment plan could take four years.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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