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ACLU Lens: Supreme Court Orders California to Reduce its Prison Population to Alleviate Overcrowding

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May 23, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court today ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population in order to alleviate extreme overcrowding that endangers the health and safety of the state’s prisoners and prison staff. The decision in Brown v. Plata affirms a lower court ruling in two long-running cases in which the medical and mental health care provided in California’s prisons was found to be so deficient that it endangers the lives of prisoners and violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

A special three-judge federal court determined in 2009 that severe overcrowding was a primary cause of the constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care provided to prisoners and would only be improved by a reduction in the prison population. The court ordered California to reduce its prisonpopulation to 137.5 percent of capacity. The system is nearly at 200 percent of capacity. Today’s ruling upholds that order.

The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case before the Supreme Court, arguing that the federal court was right to order the state to reduce the size of its prison population.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said in a statement today:

The Supreme Court has done the right thing by acknowledging what even the state itself has not disputed — that the egregious and extreme overcrowding in California’s prisons contributes to a failure by the state to keep its prisoners safe by providing the basic levels of medical and mental health care mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Today’s decision crystallizes the urgent need for California to invest in meaningful parole and sentencing reforms and alternatives to incarceration, especially for low-level, non-violent offenders. Reducing the number of people in prison not only would save state taxpayers half a billion dollars annually, it would lead to the implementation of truly rehabilitative programs that lower recidivism rates and create safer communities.

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