A three-judge federal panel ordered the state today to reduce the population of its overcrowded prisons by up to 40,000 prisoners within two
years to correct what the panel called “woefully and constitutionally inadequate” health care. The panel said there is “overwhelming” evidence that overcrowding is the primary cause of deficient medical and mental health care. The order applies to California’s 33 adult prisons, which now operate at 188 percent of capacity with 150,000 inmates housed in facilities built for about 80,000. It requires state corrections officials to reduce the population of those prisons to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years, which means a reduction of up to 40,000 prisoners. The panel gave the state 45 days to come up with a plan. The court said evidence during a trial indicated that inmate numbers could be reduced without endangering public safety through procedures such as expansion of credits for good behavior, parole reform and diversion of low-risk offenders and technical parole violators. The ruling was made in two long-running civil rights lawsuits in which inmates claimed that medical and mental health care was so inadequate it violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The three judges on the panel were U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco, Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento and 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt. The judges wrote, “The convergence of tough-on-crime policies and an unwillingness to expend the necessary funds to support the population growth has brought California’s prisons to the breaking point.” The decision finalizes a tentative ruling issued by the panel in February.
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