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.

The state claims that the federal courts are essentially overstepping their authority in issuing the orders. The lawyers for the inmates seek constitutional relief on behalf of the inmates. Incarceration for a California felony conviction does not alleviate the state of vindicating an inmate's Eighth Amendment constitutional rights.

Chief Justice John Roberts questioned whether federal judges have the authority to make decisions about spending in the correctional system within a state. He said during oral argument the decisions are "being transferred from the state Legislature to federal district courts" in the string of orders.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked during the attorney's arguments, "how much longer are we going to have to wait, another 20 years?"

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who experts believe is a swing vote on the Court, reportedly signaled he agrees the overcrowding in California prisons has led to inadequate medical care for inmates.

The attorney for the state argued that the federal court rulings are "extraordinary and unprecedented" intrusions into state prison management. The justices on the Supreme Court reportedly quickly turned the focus of the hearing on what California has done to alleviate the constitutional problem.

Source: San Jose Mercury News, "High court spars over California prison woes," Mike Zapler, 1 Dec 2010