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California can relieve packed prisons without eroding safety

The Supreme Court ruled that overcrowded prisons in California amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Reducing the prison population does not have to pit human dignity against public safety.

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The wheels of justice turn slowly for inmates in California’s overstuffed prison system, the largest in the United States. But thanks to yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, those wheels must now accelerate.

The high court determined that the state’s chronic inmate overcrowding violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. A 5-to-4 majority upheld a lower court’s 2009 order that California must reduce its prison population in order to improve conditions.

The case stems from class action suits by mentally and physically ill inmates that stretch over 21 years. The justices’ split ruling echoes old arguments pitting humane treatment against public safety – but the two are not incompatible.

Speaking for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in a civilized society.”

Built to handle 80,000 inmates, California’s prisons house nearly twice that amount – more than 140,000. Some prisoners are packed into gymnasiums in triple bunks, while some of the mentally ill are kept in phone-booth-sized cages.

The lower court found that a California prisoner needlessly dies every six or seven days “due to constitutional deficiencies.” Suicide rates are nearly 80 percent higher than the national average for prison populations.

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