Supreme Court hears arguments over California prison overcrowding

Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison interact in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners in Ione, Calif. The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday in a case that pits California's  right to run its prisons against the Constitution's guarantee that individuals behind bars have a right to minimally basic medical care.
Inmates at the Mule Creek State Prison interact in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners in Ione, Calif. The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday in a case that pits California's right to run its prisons against the Constitution's guarantee that individuals behind bars have a right to minimally basic medical care. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court hears a case that could severely affect California’s prison population. KPCC’s Julie Small is in Washington, D.C. for today’s arguments.

This case is about how to resolve ongoing problems in California's prison system. For two decades, California has been under a court order to improve medical and mental health care for inmates.

It's not that California's been ordered to provide Cadillac care; today, one inmate dies every eight days due to shoddy medical care. The suicide rate in California prisons is twice the national average.

Despite efforts by the state to improve the situation over two decades, it's still bad.

Last year, three federal judges ordered California to reduce the prison population. They decided that the only cure for the situation was to reduce overcrowding in California prisons; California prisons are packed to nearly double capacity.

They ordered California to release 46,000 inmates, about a third of the total, in the next two years. California appealed that order, and the U.S. Supreme Court hears that appeal today.

California says that the three federal judges overstepped their authority, violating a federal statute called the Prison Litigation Reform Act. That act says that the only way federal judges can order a prison reduction by a state is if the reduction is the only way to solve an ongoing violation; the ongoing violation in this case is the lack of medical and mental health care. It has to be the only solution to the problem.

California says this is incorrect and that there are less drastic things that could have been ordered. They say they haven't been given enough time to solve the problem.

The judges say that California has had two decades to solve this problem, it's not getting any better and indications are that overcrowding is preventing efforts to improve the situation.

If the prison reduction order is upheld, California has two years to reduce the prison population. They can do it in increments, and that's how they've proposed doing it. In six month installments, they plan to gradually reduce inmates.

They're looking at all ways to reduce prison overcrowding short of releasing inmates early. They'll look at parole reform, transferring inmates out of state and expanding capacity in the prisons, but they may not be able to do so quickly enough since it has to be done within two years.

They may have to let some inmates out of prison early and also change how many are sent back to prison when they violate parole.

If the U.S. Supreme Court strikes the prisoner reduction order, it won't change much what's going on right now. The federal judge in charge of overseeing two cases to oversee prison medical and mental health care will still be in charge of those cases, will continue to issue orders and will continue to drive California toward making these changes.

Either way, there won't be any immediate, drastic change in the California prison system.

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