Overcrowding has been a large problem in California's prison system. In fact, lawsuits tracing back to 1990 challenging overcrowding issues led a district court to order the state to reduce its prison population. California took the matter to the highest court in the land. A Santa Cruz criminal defense attorney knows that individuals charged with crimes in the state have the constitutional right to challenge the state's case at trial. However, people convicted of crimes who are placed in the state's prison system also retain certain constitutional rights.

Monday the United States Supreme Court agreed that California's overcrowded prisons are a matter of constitutional importance. The Court handed down a five-to-four ruling that concludes the state has failed to correct "serious constitutional violations" in the prison system related to overcrowding.

The state prison system was designed to hold a maximum capacity of roughly 80,000 people when the federal litigation began in 1990. Two separate class-action lawsuits were filed over more than a decade in an effort to correct the constitutional flaws in the prison system. Populations in the state's prison grew to more than double the intended capacity of the system.

A three judge appellate panel ordered the state to reduce the population in California's state prisons to 137.5 percent of the designed capacity to help ensure prisoner's constitutional rights. The 2009 ruling said inmates were being denied their constitutional right to receive adequate medical care while held in prison due to overcrowding. Justice Anthony Kennedy writes in the majority opinion handed down Monday, "this extensive and ongoing constitutional violation requires a remedy, and a remedy will not be achieved without a reduction in overcrowding." The Supreme Court ordered California to implement the appellate panel's order reducing the prison population without delay. The original order from the appellate panel gives the state a two-year deadline.

The high court says despite the concept that prisoners may be denied some rights fundamental to liberty after a conviction, the Constitution demands recognition of certain rights of inmates. Kennedy writes, "Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment."

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Supreme Court upholds order for California to release 46,000 inmates," James Oliphant 23 May 2011