Crime & Justice

Supreme Court tells California to cut prison population

California's prisons are some of the most crowded
California's prisons are some of the most crowded
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court order that will force California to reduce its prison population by 32,000 inmates. It would be the largest prisoner release in history.

In the 52-page ruling written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court found by a 5-4 majority that a panel of federal judges acted within their authority when they ordered California to reduce its prison population by thousands of inmates within two years.

The judges issued the order in 2009 when they found that overcrowding in California prisons deprives inmates of adequate medical and mental health care.

California appealed to the nation’s highest court. The Supreme Court Justices heard oral arguments on the case in November 2010.

California argued that the state has reduced overcrowding and improved medical care since then.

California’s prisons hold 146,000 inmates in facilities designed for 80,000.

The state prison population’s declined from an all-time high in 2006 of 170,000. The state achieved that by temporarily transferring 10,000 inmates to private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

So what happens next?

Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill this year to shift roughly 40,000 inmates from state to local lock-ups. The realignment plan won’t take effect unless it’s funded.

Brown wants state lawmakers to approve a series of tax extensions to pay for it and ask voters to ratify the extensions later this year or next. California Secretary of Corrections Matthew Cate says if California’s doesn’t provide the funding to carry out realignment he’d look at sending more inmates to prisons in other states.

Prison officials could implement parts of the prisoner reduction plan they submitted to the court in 2009 which relies on alternative custody options, such as GPS monitoring and house arrest for low-level offenders.

Lawyer for inmates says ruling to cut prison population not dangerous

A top inmates rights lawyer says California can comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling without flooding the streets with criminals.

Attorney Don Spector with the Prison Law Office says Justice Antonin Scalia’s warning that “terrible things are sure to happen” is wrong.

"The gates of California prisons aren’t going to be opened, and 30,000 prisoners aren’t going to walk out tomorrow," says Spector. "The court ordered a very slow, conscientious process that gives state prison and law enforcement officials complete discretion on how to accomplish it. Public safety is not going to be harmed because of this carefully crafted injunction."

Governor Brown has proposed a “realignment” plan that would shift some low-level inmates out of state prisons and into county jails – but lawmakers in Sacramento haven’t approved the money to pay for it.


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that California will have to cut the state’s prison population by about 32,000 inmates.

In a 5 to 4 decision the Supreme Court said that the reduction is “required by the Constitution” to correct longstanding violations of inmates' rights.

A decade ago a U.S. district judge found that one inmate a week was dying from shoddy medical care in state prisons. A ruling in a separate case found psychiatric care in California’s state prisons grossly inadequate.

Those judges ordered the state to improve conditions. California spent billions of dollars to improve that care, but it was hard to make much progress because the prisons are so overcrowded. California’s prisons are packed with 140,000 inmates – close to twice their capacity.

A couple years ago a panel of three federal judges ordered the state to reduce the inmate population within two years.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a California native, wrote the majority opinion. In it he included photos of severe overcrowding in the prisons.

The court's four Democratic appointees joined with Kennedy. Justice Antonin Scalia read his dissent aloud. He called the court’s decision “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history.”

State prison officials have two years to comply with the prisoner reduction order – but the Supreme Court ruling allows California to ask the federal judges for up to three more years to comply.

State lawmakers recently enacted a bill (AB109) to transfer responsibility for thousands of prisoners to counties. That plan would take four years to complete.