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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.

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Horror stories in California prisons have been on the radar for roughly two decades. A sometimes heated debate regarding the issues of overcrowding and substandard medical care filled a 90-minute U.S. Supreme Court hearing last week. U.S. Supreme Court justices are being asked to rule on the extent to which federal courts can issue an order to ease overcrowding in California prisons.

People convicted of a California felony may be sent to the already overcrowded prisons in the state. The case on review in the Supreme Court stems from suits filed against the state of California dating back to the 1990s alleging that overcrowding violates inmate's Eighth Amendment constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment. Over the years federal courts have issued orders demanding that California implement better treatment for inmates in the overcrowded prison system.

A three-judge federal appellate panel issued a ruling last year that requires the state of California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity within two years. Roughly 36,000 to 45,000 prisoners would have to be released or transferred to other facilities to comply with the court order.

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