U.S. judges seek massive California prisoner release

Mon Feb 9, 2009 9:57pm EST
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By Peter Henderson

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Federal judges on Monday tentatively ordered California to release tens of thousands of inmates, up to a third of all prisoners, in the next three years to stop dangerous overcrowding.

As many as 57,000 could be let go if the current population were cut by the maximum percentage considered by a three-judge panel. Judges said the move could be done without threatening public safety -- and might improve a public safety hazard.

The state immediately said it would appeal the final ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Trend-setting California, the Golden State, has an immense prison system responsible for nearly 170,000 inmates, and their care has become a major political and budget issue as officials weigh multibillion costs of improved facilities against death and illness behind bars.

State officials say new doctors, nurses and prison rules have improved care and cut the dangers of living behind bars.

Meanwhile California is staggering through budget crisis as its real estate market has collapsed and unemployment has spiked.

The three judges specifically said they planned to order the system, swollen to about double its capacity last year, to cut down to 120 percent to 145 percent of capacity within two to three years. They did not give a target headcount.

APPEAL VOWED   Continued...