A legal battle over who gets to control California’s massive spending on prisons – judges or corrections officials – may yet be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, with overcrowding at the state’s 33 prisons at the center of the debate, says the Los Angeles Times. But the court this morning postponed a decision until after a hearing next term. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state officials have challenged an edict from three federal judges that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must cut the prison population by 40,000, or about a quarter of its 165,000 inmates. The judges’ order, issued last August, cited overcrowding as the main cause of healthcare failures that amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and left inmates to die from treatable conditions at the rate of one per week.
The three-judge order brought to a head the tension over a decades-long judicial practice of intervening in prison management to correct what have been deemed unconstitutional deficiencies in state custody. Courts have empowered a phalanx of overseers and experts to mandate reforms, budget woes have made made the monitors a point of contention. The U.S. Supreme Court had been expected to decide as early as Monday whether to review the three-judge order to reduce overcrowding, but its postponement delays that decision. Some observers of the legal tug of war over inmate treatment believe the conservative justices on the high court want to weigh in on what they may see as judicial activism.