California – The California prison system will take center stage on Tuesday, November 30, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in a case known as Schwarzenegger vs. Plata. Under review: A California federal district court ruling in January mandating that the state cut the California prison population by approximately 40,000 and cap the inmate population at 137.5% of capacity within two years.
The January ruling was prompted by the conclusion that overcrowding in the state’s prison system (the largest population in the nation) is the main cause of poor medical and mental health care that violates prisoner’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Beyond capacity for two decades, the California prison system currently holds 164,000 inmates in a system designed to house approximately 80,000.
However, California officials argue that the January ruling by the three-judge panel overstepped boundaries and that the judges did not have the authority to issue the release order. The Supreme Court will determine if the judges correctly applied the relevant 1996 federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, which governs how federal courts can be involved in the management of state prisons. The Supreme Court will not be responsible for judging if the ruling was necessary or if overcrowding is the primary contributor to substandard health care.