Crime & Courts

Supreme Court to hear prison overcrowding case

WASHINGTON — California's overcrowded prisons will pose some particularly trying questions today for the U.S. Supreme Court.

With officials in other states watching closely, justices will consider whether a lower court acted properly in ordering California to dramatically reduce its inmate population.

The lower court's judgment "will require the state to reduce its prison population by roughly 38,000 to 46,000 inmates within two years," warned California's attorney, Carter Phillips, adding that "the release of these inmates will jeopardize the safety of California residents" unless major investments in rehabilitation are made.

The offsetting rehabilitation investments, Phillips added, are politically and financially unrealistic.

Donald Specter of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Prison Law Office, will argue the case in starkly different terms.

"Overcrowding causes extreme peril to the lives of prisoners and prison staff," Specter argues, adding that "prisoners are dying unnecessarily at the alarming rate of one every eight days because they do not receive basic medical care from the state."

Reducing prison overcrowding doesn't necessarily mean that thousands of inmates will be set loose, Specter said. Other options include transferring inmates to other jurisdictions, diverting nonviolent inmates to jails and restructuring parole so that fewer violators are returned to prison.

The Supreme Court will decide whether a three-judge district court panel that consists of California-based federal judges had the authority under the law to order the inmate release. The court also will address whether inmate overcrowding was the "primary cause" of unconstitutionally bad care and, even if it was, whether the inmate release order went too far.

"If the three-judge court's order were allowed to stand, the state would constantly have thousands more criminals on the streets," Louisiana Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell argued in a legal brief endorsed by 17 other states.

California's 33 state prisons are holding roughly 160,000 inmates, nearly twice what they were built for.