After a hearing on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court appears likely to uphold a judicially mandated population cap for California prisons, reports Southern California Public Radio. The state had appealed a ruling last year by three federal judges ordering California to reduce overcrowding they said deprived inmates of adequate medical and mental health care. The judges ordered the population reduced by a third – about 40,000 inmates. Don Specter, an attorney representing inmates, argued that overcrowding results in one inmate death every week and a suicide rate double the national average. On the steps of the courthouse after the hearing, Specter said most Supreme Court justices indicated that they had a clear picture of the risks overcrowding poses to inmates and prison staff. Specter said California prison officials admit as much.
But the state’s attorney, Carter Phillips, said conditions have greatly improved since a federal receiver assumed control of prison medical care four years ago. Phillips told the justices that the government should allow the receiver to complete the job. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said the state had failed to comply with two decades of lower court orders to fix inmate's medical and mental health care. She asked Phillips, “How much longer do we have to wait, another 20 years?” Chief Justice John Roberts suggested more sympathy for California's position that a population cap poses risks to public safety. During the hearing, Phillips told the justices that if the state addresses the crowding as ordered, “people are going to die on the streets of California.”