Court hears Calif. prisons case

Nov. 30, 2010 at 2:09 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- A divided U.S. Supreme Court heard argument Monday on whether judges can force California to release 46,000 inmates because of problems providing healthcare.

The argument came close to being rowdy at times, with justices talking over each other to ask questions and Chief Justice John Roberts making only a minimum effort to referee, SCOTUSBLOG.com reported. The sole justice not to engage in the dispute, the report said, was Justice Clarence Thomas, who usually remains silent during argument.

The report said Justice Anthony Kennedy, frequently the swing vote on the nine-member high court with its four consistent conservatives and four consistent liberals, appeared poised to be the deciding vote once again. Kennedy seemed ready to accept a lower-court ruling ordering the release, but only after paring it down or lessening its impact, SCOTUSBLOG reported.

California, which has the largest state prison system in the United States with 165,000 inmates, has the nation's worst overcrowding problem and has been fighting a budget crisis for years, court records said. Lawyers for state inmates argue inadequate medical care is "cruel and unusual" punishment banned by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Relying on a special master's report and other studies, a three-judge panel in San Francisco found the "current level of crowding far exceeds even the maximum safe and reasonable capacity of the California prison system, which, by (the system's) own determination, is (at) 179 percent design capacity for prisons holding male prisoners."

The panel said it concluded: "The constitutional deficiencies in the California prison system's medical and mental health system cannot be resolved in the absence of a prisoner release order. Clear and convincing evidence establishes that none of the available alternatives to such an order ... can bring the California prison system into constitutional compliance within a reasonable period of time."

The three-judge panel's order gave the state 45 days to "provide the court with a population reduction plan that will in no more than two years reduce the population of the ... adult institutions to 137.5 percent of their combined design capacity."

Most analysts said that meant California would have to release at least 46,000 inmates, about a fourth of its prison population, unless the Supreme Court reverses.

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