The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in the next two years, California must remove tens of thousands of inmates from its prison rolls. The court gave the state two years to shrink the number of prisoners by more than 33,000 and two weeks to submit a schedule for achieving that goal. California now has 143,335 inmates.
In presenting the decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a Sacramento native, spoke from the bench about suicidal prisoners being held in "telephone booth-sized cages without toilets" and others, sick with cancer or in severe pain, who died before being seen by a doctor. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, and as many as 54 may share a single toilet, he said.
The court's four conservatives accused their colleagues of "gambling with the safety of the people of California," in the words of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. "I fear that today's decision will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see," he said.
Governor Jerry Brown has presented a plan which will cost $302-million, and will shift 32,500 inmates to county jurisdiction by mid-2013. Among those identified for the program are tens of thousands of parole violators sent to costly state prisons every year to serve 90 days or less.
Administration officials expressed confidence that their plan to shift low-level offenders to county jails, drug treatment programs and other facilities, already approved by lawmakers, would ease the persistent crowding that the high court said had caused needless suffering and death and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.