Crime & Justice

Supreme Court impatient with slow progress in California prison medical upgrades

Don Specter with the Prison Law Office argued in support of the prisoner reduction order.
Don Specter with the Prison Law Office argued in support of the prisoner reduction order.
Justin Ho/KPCC

Supreme Court justices could be ready to uphold an order to cut California's prison population by 40,000 inmates in two years. The high court heard arguments today in a long-running case over poor medical care for inmates at the state's 33 prisons.

California prison officials say a lower court went too far when it ordered the reduction in the inmate population. They say they need more time to improve prison medical care.

But the justices weren't sympathetic. They pressed state attorneys to explain why more than a decade hasn't been enough time to bring inmate medical care up to standards.

One case has been in the works for two decades, the other has been a decade-long case in which the state has limped along in making the improvements. They all seemed to agree that more time was not what was needed here.

But the justices aren't sure what is needed. Justice Samuel Alito is worried about public safety.

Alito cited an example in Philadelphia where they did have a prisoner reduction and there was an increase in crime rates. He grilled the attorney for inmates to say, "Are you sure you can achieve these reductions without compromising public safety?" He did not seem to be convinced by any of the arguments the attorney put forward.

The justices were reluctant to talk about either a specific timetable for reducing California's inmate population or a specific population limit. But there was some talk that maybe a few extra years – perhaps five instead of two – might work.

California's 33 prisons hold about 150,000 inmates – nearly twice their capacity. The Supreme Court's decision on the prison population reduction order won't come until next summer.