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High court: California prison overcrowding unconstitutional

Prison Overcrowding
Overcrowding in Califonria Prisons. Photo: California Corrections / California DOC

For decades, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has worked to stop the use of mass incarceration. Thus, AFSC welcomes the landmark decision of Monday, May 23, 2011, by the US Supreme Court that overcrowding in California’s prisons results in “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the US Constitution’s Eighth Amendment .

The Court's ruling affirms a January 2010 order by three federal judges that directs California officials to reduce the state's severe prison overcrowding by approximately 32,000 prisoners within the next two years.  Lengthy litigation began when federal judges, who oversee California's prison health care system, ordered that a three-judge panel be convened to consider placing limits on California's prison population. That order came after the federal judges concluded that California prisons were not providing constitutionally adequate medical care and mental health services, due in part to severe overcrowding.

"After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effective absent a reduction in the prison system population," the Supreme Court found.

In an unusual action, the decision was accompanied by photos of prisoners jammed into open, gymnasium-like rooms, and of cages where mentally ill inmates are held, awaiting psychiatric services. One inmate was found standing “in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.

It is unprecedented that pictures are in a Supreme Court opinion, but in his finding, Kennedy found overcrowding to be the “primary cause” of “severe and unlawful mistreatment of prisoners through grossly inadequate provision of medical and mental health care,” which led to “needless suffering and death. “

Details of the court decision are available on the Prison Law Office website: .

 A plan to reduce the prison population without compromising public safety was submitted to the federal court in November 2009 by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.  It includes making changes in parole policies, assigning some prisoners to county jails or home detention, and granting additional sentence credits for “good behavior.”

Many other options were suggested by the Citizens United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) coalition, whose members include AFSC.  Reducing sentences for possession of small amounts of drugs, or for the second offense for petty theft, would affect thousands of people. Low level property offenses could be handled as misdemeanors instead of felonies. California’s notorious “ three strikes”  law could be amended to require that the second and third strike be classified as “serious or violent” before taking effect.

 CURB has published a “Budget for Humanity” that recommends measures for reducing prison spending in order to free up dollars for needed human services.  The budget is available at

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