Some 143,000 inmates are locked in California's prisons, a jam packed system designed for 86,000. Because of overcrowding, mentally ill inmates have been locked in phone-booth sized cages for weeks, sitting in their own feces, catatonic, and untreated. Inmates denied basic health care die. Others are exposed to infectious diseases - as are prison staff.
For years, California has failed to reduce overcrowding. Now it is compelled to do so - given two years to get the numbers down to 137% of design capacity, a reduction of 33,000 inmates.
The justices gave state officials maximum flexibility. They don't have to release any inmates. They should, however, let the aged and infirm go. The quadriplegic, for example, who is paralyzed from the neck down poses no threat.
The safest course would be to slow the flow of parole violators who cycle into prison for four month stays on average.
Critics claim the decision will endanger the public. Nonsense. It's the status quo that puts people most at risk. Mentally ill and sick inmates untreated and brutalized in overcrowded prisons eventually get out, more sick and dangerous than when they arrived. The court's ruling doesn't coddle inmates, it protects us all.
Ginger Rutland writes for The Sacramento Bee opinion pages.