Judges order Calif. to cut inmate population

August 4, 2009 11:52:33 PM PDT
A federal court panel in San Francisco weighed in on California's packed prisons Tuesday, saying severe overcrowding is the primary cause of poor health care in the penal system. The court is ordering the state to release tens of thousands of inmates.

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Over 40,000 prisoners could be released over the next two years. Three federal judges handed down the ruling Tuesday to ease the system's overcrowding problem.

"It shows how dysfunctional the state's justice system is," attorney Don Specter of the Prison Law Office said.

Specter filed the federal class action lawsuit, asking the courts put a cap on the prison's population. He says releasing low risk and non-violent inmates, will help.

"If this is done right, which I'm confident it can be, then the public will be safer, the tax payers will be better off and the money will be put to better use," Specter said.

Right now there are 150,000 inmates in California prisons. The capacity is 80,000. Releasing 40,000 prisoners will save the state nearly $2 billion.

Still, California's corrections secretary thinks the feds ruling goes too far.

"To have the federal court have the authority to release inmates is a dangerous precedent and we think it over steps," Matthew Cate said.

Tim and Ilia Smith also think releasing inmates, regardless of their risk classification, is a bad idea. Their daughter was murdered by a man they say would have previously been classified as non-violent.

"What kind of message does that give to victims and families of victims like ourselves, that actions that used to be crimes are no longer considered to be crimes," Tim Smith asked.

"To release them and put them in the community is a horrible crime against the victims," Ilia Smith said.

Governor Schwarzenegger has 45 days to either come up with an inmate release plan or appeal the federal courts decision.

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