Critical Supreme Court Case Being Heard Now

Posted: December 1, 2010 by lactoselazy in IDOC, IL in Fiscal Ruins, Terrible Wrongs - Other Cases

IL is one of the 18 states supporting California’s position…

Is California’s prison system cruel and unusual punishment?

By Zachary Roth Tue Nov 30, 1:03 pm ET


In a major test case, lawyers for California prisoners allege their clients are kept in such overcrowded conditions that they should be released, rather than continue serving sentences that fall under the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court began hearing the case today, in a proceeding likely to shine a spotlight on the nation’s controversial incarceration system.

A panel of federal judges ruled last year that the overcrowding in California prisons constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The judges ordered California to release 40,00 inmates over two years.  But lawyers for the state appealed, leading to the Supreme Court’s hearing.

Lawyers for the prisoners argue in court papers that California’s prisons are housing twice as many prisoners as they were built to contain, and as a result, the safety of prisoners, guards, and prison personnel is in jeopardy.

For instance, the lawyers argue, prisoners aren’t receiving adequate access to health care. “Prisoners are dying unnecessarily at the alarming rate of one every eight days because they do not receive basic medical care from the State,” wrote Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association agrees. “Due to overcrowding,” lawyers for the group wrote in an amicus brief, “California uses converted gymnasiums to house hundreds of inmates on double- and triple-stacked bunks. In these prison ‘dormitories’ there are normally only one or two correctional officers to supervise approximately 200 inmates.”

But lawyers for the state counter that releasing so many prisoners would put Californians at risk, because there isn’t currently enough money for the rehabilitation programs that the released inmates would need. And, they say, with the state facing a budget crisis, it’s by no means certain that that money will materialize.

They also say the state hadn’t been given enough time to comply with previous court orders on the issue.

The case could have implications beyond the Golden State. Eighteen other states have filed a brief in support of California, because they fear that they, too, could be forced to release prisoners.

During the 1980s and 1990s, tough-on-crime laws — including California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law — helped to swell prison populations across the country. Though the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it incarcerates almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

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