Calif. Judges Order Prisoners Released

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A panel of federal judges said Monday California must release tens of thousands of prison inmates to relieve overcrowding. The ruling was prompted by several cases in which inmates have died or committed suicide due to poor conditions.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

A long-running dispute over California's crowded prisons has taken a dramatic turn. Yesterday, a panel of federal judges ruled that thousands of inmates must be released. Several deaths and suicides among the prison population have been blamed on substandard conditions. The state says putting thousands of convicted criminals onto the streets is not the answer.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: California has 33 prisons housing nearly 160,000 inmates. That's about double their capacity. In some facilities, inmates are triple-bunked in gymnasiums, leading to a heightened risk of infectious disease not only for prisoners, but also guards. In recent years, poor medical and mental-health care led to many inmates deaths, occurring on an average of about one a week. Years ago, two federal judges found conditions in California prisons to be unconstitutional.

Then yesterday, a three-judge panel said the only possible relief is for California to drastically reduce its prison population. Many of the problems have centered around mentally ill prisoners. Michael Bien is an attorney who's argued on their behalf.

Mr. MICHAEL BIEN (Attorney): It is a comprehensive victory for the position that we advocated, that overcrowding must be addressed, and must be addressed now, in order to remedy the ongoing horrific constitutional violations in the health-care delivery system in the California prisons.

GONZALES: In a 10-page ruling, the judges said the state's prisons should be reduced by nearly 60,000 inmates, and that goal could be met gradually over two or three years. State officials immediately balked, announcing that they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if the ruling becomes final. Seth Unger is a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He says the judges' ruling amounts to emptying seven to 10 prisons.

Mr. SETH UNGER (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Spokesman): So, we believe that that will be very difficult to do without compromising public safety. Over 50 percent of the inmates that are in our prisons are convicted of crimes against persons. These are things like murder, manslaughter, assault, kidnapping, sex offenses - serious crimes. And so, a release order of that magnitude would certainly have to include some of those classes of inmates.

Dr. BARRY KRISBERG (National Council on Crime and Delinquency President): Nobody is talking about letting go violent and dangerous offenders.

GONZALES: Barry Krisberg is the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and a longtime prison reform advocate.

Dr. KRISBERG: We're talking about low-level offenders, property offenders, drug offenders, moving them out a little bit earlier than they would be released anyway. Somebody who would've got out in June now gets out in March.

GONZALES: Krisberg says other ways to cut the prison population is to limit new admissions, and bolster parole programs so that fewer newly released inmates get caught in the revolving door back to prison. And the judges said such reforms could save the state $1 billion that could be redirected to incarcerating low-risk prisoners in smaller, local facilities.

The judges' ruling directs California officials to sit down and negotiate with prison reformers as well as a politically powerful guards union, which has sided with the prisons in a call for better conditions and less overcrowding. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown concede the state's prisons may need an overhaul. But they say federal judges are overstepping their authority in trying to order the changes. That sets a stage for a long-running court battle to get even longer.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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