Los Angeles – The U.S. Supreme Court today ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population in order to alleviate extreme overcrowding that endangers the health and safety of the state’s prisoners and prison staff.  The court ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity. The system is nearly at 200 percent of capacity.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California applauds today’s U.S. Supreme Court order. 

The ACLU of California is encouraging legislators to take a long-term approach to solving the problem of prison overcrowding by instituting sentencing reforms to reduce the penalties for low level non-violent offenses from felony sentences to misdemeanors. Contrary to some accounts, the court order does not require the release of prisoners – it requires reducing prison populations.  The ACLU believes this is best achieved through front end parole and sentencing reforms.

“Today’s decision underscores what we’ve been saying for some time – that California’s penal system is bursting at the seams and subjects inmates to inhumane living conditions,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.  “With no money in the budget in sight for the construction of new prisons, it’s clear that California must pursue alternatives to incarceration where reasonably possible.  Overcrowding creates a dangerous situation for both inmates and guards, who, as we’ve seen in our monitoring of L.A. County jails, are under such pressure they often resort to unnecessary force when dealing with prisoners.  California’s political leaders have been unwilling to solve this ongoing crisis – that’s why we have a judicial system, to step in when the political process fails and people’s rights are violated as a result.”

More than 9,000 people are currently in state prison for possessing a small amount of drugs for personal use.  California spends $47,000 each year to lock each of these people up. 

According to a new poll solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents from every corner of the state believe that too many people are imprisoned and that penalties for minor offenses are too harsh. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of likely voters support reducing the penalty for simple possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use.

In addition to changing the penalty for simple possession of drugs, the ACLU of California also supports making low-level, non-violent property offenses misdemeanors, instead of felonies. If charged as misdemeanors, the maximum sentence that can be imposed is one year in county jail.  A deputy D.A. in Woodland, CA, recently pressed for a felony conviction of a mentally ill man caught stealing a candy bar. 

The decision affirms a lower court ruling in two long-running cases in which the medical and mental health care provided in California’s prisons was found to be so deficient that it endangers the lives of prisoners and violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

A special three-judge federal court determined in 2009 that severe overcrowding was a primary cause of the constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care provided to prisoners and would only be improved by a reduction in the prison population.