The U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to review a lower court order requiring the state of California to reduce the population of its overcrowded prisons by 40,000 within two years.
The order was issued in January by a three-judge federal panel, which said a decrease was needed to correct “woefully and constitutionally inadequate” medical and mental health care for inmates.
It was appealed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, which claims the panel didn’t have the authority to order a population reduction.
“We are pleased the U.S. Supreme Court will hear our appeal,” Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Rachel Arrezola said. “We continue to believe federal judges do not have the authority to order the early release of prisoners in our state.”
The state’s 33 adult prisons now house nearly 150,000 inmates in facilities built for 80,000.
The lower court panel issued its order in connection with two long-running civil rights lawsuits in which inmates claim that prison medical and mental health care is so deficient it amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
The panel, made up of two federal trial judges and one federal appeals court judge, concluded that severe overcrowding was the chief cause of inadequate health care.
It said reducing the prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity, or to 110,000, was the only effective remedy, and that it believed it was possible to do so without harming public safety.
The panel was convened under the U.S. Prison Litigation Reform Act, which provides that a court order to reduce prison population can be made only by a three-judge panel and not by a single federal judge presiding over a civil rights lawsuit.
Donald Specter, a lawyer representing inmates in both cases, said, “We think that when the Supreme Court hears all the facts of the case and understands what the three-judge panel did, it will uphold the order.”
The case will be argued during the high court’s next term, which begins in October. A hearing date has not yet been set.
In the meantime, the three-judge panel has stayed its order until the high court rules.
Two of the judges on the lower court panel, U.S. District Judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento, are presiding over the two inmate lawsuits. The third judge is 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt.