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U.S. Supreme Court Orders California to Release or Relocate Inmates

Prison populations are growing faster than the facilities created to house them. As of June 2010, Florida prisons housed over 102,000 inmates, an increase in prison population of 15 percent over the last five years.

Prison overcrowding does not simply indicate that there are more and more violent criminals. A lack of adequate services for the mentally ill as well as zero-tolerance policies for drug offenses have lead to more and longer prison sentences for non-violent crimes. Diversion programs have also suffered as budgets have tightened across the country.

States throughout the U.S., including Florida, are looking for ways to avoid prison overcrowding. The Supreme Court told California to fix it.

In Brown v. Plata, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that California's prison systems were so overcrowded that they violated inmates' 8th Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling requires California to decrease the number of prisoners in its system by approximately 30,000 over the next two years.

Justice Kennedy wrote that conditions in some California prisons were so bad that they caused "needless suffering and death."

California prisons have held up to double their maximum capacity in recent years, forcing prison gymnasiums to be converted into bunk houses for 200+ inmates, inmates on suicide watch to be held in telephone-booth-style cells while awaiting a mental health bed and a ratio of 50 prisoners to a single toilet. Health care in the California prison system is so inadequate that it's blamed for at least one preventable death per week.

But, the justices were divided on whether what was fair to inmates was fair to the general public. The dissent characterized the actions of the majority as "gambling with the safety of the people of California."

Relocation to other facilities, including county jails rather than state prisons, as well as early release, are options California is considering to comply with the court order.

Source: Fair Warning, "Supreme Court Orders California to Reduce Prison Overcrowding," 5/24/2011

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