Three federal judges seem convinced that overcrowding in California prisons is so bad it leads to unconstitutional conditions, reports the Associated Press. Now they must weigh whether ordering the release of nearly a third of the state’s inmates would be a public safety nightmare. The state’s 33 adult prisons hold nearly twice as many inmates as they were designed to house. Attorneys for inmates asked the judges yesterday to order the state to trim about 52,000 inmates from the current population of 156,300 over the next two years.
The three-judge panel is acting for the first time under a 1995 federal law designed to limit the judiciary’s power in inmate rights cases; any release order likely faces an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. More testimony is scheduled this month on whether releasing inmates early will increase crime. “In the long run, does it make any difference to public safety if we release them 60 days earlier?” than their original sentence, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton wondered as the judges debated one hypothetical release order this week. Attorneys for inmates argued that releasing prisoners would reduce prison violence and the spread of contagious disease, end the need for housing inmates in gymnasiums and other makeshift areas, and improve treatment for mentally and physically ill inmates who sometimes die of neglect.