Two federal judges in Sacramento indicated yesterday that they are leaning toward creating a judicial panel charged with setting a population cap for California’s prison system, the Sacramento Bee reports. U.S. District Court Judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton strongly suggested during a hearing that inmate overcrowding is contributing mightily to constitutional violations of inadequate medical and mental health care in the state’s prisons. They said the constitutional violations are getting worse.
Karlton, who is presiding in an inmate class-action mental health case settled in 1995, said, “People are dying.” In Henderson’s case, the state admitted in 2002 that it was violating inmates’ constitutional rights by providing them with inadequate medical care, to the point where one inmate was dying due to medical neglect every week. Karlton said that the courts’ imposing a population cap would amount to a “very radical” step and possibly create a “public safety danger.” Plaintiffs’ lawyer Michael Bien countered, “This is not a radical step. It’s something the law provides for.” An attorney for the state asked, “Are plaintiffs really suggesting we release 37,000 inmates?,” referring to a 2004 Corrections Independent Review Panel figure of 137,764 as the “maximum safe and reasonable” population for California prisons. The current inmate population is 173,000.