US Supreme Court to hear California prison cap appeal

File photo: Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison walk near their bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners August 28, 2007 in Ione, California.
File photo: Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison walk near their bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners August 28, 2007 in Ione, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to consider the legality of a prison population cap in California. A three-judge panel had ordered the cap in January. The high court will now decide whether to overturn that order.

The three federal judges ordered California to cut its prison population by roughly 40,000 inmates. They reasoned that overcrowding in prisons deprived inmates of basic medical and mental health care.

As soon as the judges ordered the prison population cap, the Schwarzenegger administration filed an appeal.

"We continue to believe that the federal judges don't have any authority here" said Schwarzenegger's spokeswoman Rachel Arrezola. "California should be able to take action on its own to keep its citizens safe without interference from the federal courts. So we are pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court is going to take up our appeal on this case."

But attorney Don Spector with the Prison Law Office says state officials failed for a decade to improve prison conditions on "on their own. ... then they yell and scream that the courts are infringing on their prerogatives."

Spector's confident the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold the prison population cap he asked for on behalf of inmates.

"I believe the court will affirm the lower court ruling because, in part, the three-judge panel was doing nothing more than trying to do what Arnold Schwarzenegger was trying to do through the legislature," Spector said.

What Schwarzenegger was trying to do was push a plan through the legislature to reduce California's inmate population. It would have sent fewer inmates back to prison for parole violations, trimmed a couple of months off the sentences of some non-violent low-level offenders, and diverted some non-violent felons to county and city jails.

Lawmakers passed a scaled-back plan, but a three-judge federal appeals court panel ruled it did not do enough to reduce prison overcrowding. The judges instead ordered the state to cap California's prison population. The state appealed that order and now the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the prison population cap this fall. A ruling could come by early next year.

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