Supreme Court Rules California Must Cut Prison Population By a 5-to-4 vote, the high court ruled that severe overcrowding in state prisons has resulted in extreme suffering and even death, a deprivation of the inmates' rights that violates the Constitution and the 1995 federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, as well.
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High Court Rules Calif. Must Cut Prison Population

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High Court Rules Calif. Must Cut Prison Population

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High Court Rules Calif. Must Cut Prison Population

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

NPR legal affairs correspondents Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: California's prison system designed to house 80,000 prisoners housed twice that many by 2009.

WAYNE SCOTT: The California state prison system is the worst, overcrowded system that I have seen in my experience.

TOTENBERG: In an angry oral dissent from the bench, Justice Antonin Scalia called the court's decision radical, outrageous, wildly beyond the institutional capacity of courts. The result, he said, would be the release of tens of thousands of happy-go-lucky felons.

JEANNE WOODFORD: I don't think that the state of California has to release anyone really.

TOTENBERG: Jeanne Woodford, former warden of the San Quentin prison, and head of the California Department of Corrections. She and other expert witnesses, point to a variety of ways California can reduce overcrowding, short of releasing prisoners.

WOODFORD: This is really about making our minds up that prison is for violent offenders, and others should be kept at the local level. It costs $50,000 per year to keep someone in state prison. It can be done much more cheaply at the local level.

TOTENBERG: Donald Specter, whose litigation led to today's ruling, suggests there may have to be changes to California's three-strikes law as well, that imposes mandatory, 25-year minimums on three-time offenders, even if their crimes are nonviolent.

DONALD SPECTER: There are a lot of second-strikers who get their sentence doubled just because they've had another strike. So instead of a burglary being five years, automatically it's 10.

TOTENBERG: Late today, Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections, spelled out the state's plans.

MATTHEW CATE: The number one goal at this point is to do whatever is necessary, both from the legislative point of view and with corrections, to implement AB109, which is the governor's plan for realigning corrections. This will take us a long way towards complying with the court's order.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

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