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California's day of reckoning has finally come for three decades of tough-on-crime policies that led to overcrowded prisons and unconstitutional conditions for inmates.

The federal courts have already found that the prison system's delivery of health and mental health care is so negligent that it's a direct cause of inmate deaths.

A special three-judge panel reconvenes Tuesday and is prepared to decide whether crowding has become so bad that inmates cannot receive proper care. If they do, the panel will decide if lowering the inmate population is the only way to fix the problems.

That could result in an order to release tens of thousands of California inmates before their terms are finished, a move Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republican lawmakers say would endanger public safety.

"The time has come: The extreme, pervasive and long-lasting overcrowding in California prisons must be addressed," attorney Michael Bien, representing inmates, told the judges during the opening of the trial.

Bien and other civil rights attorneys want the panel to order the prison population cut from 156,300 inmates to about 110,000. That still would be above the capacity of California's 33 state prisons, which were designed to hold fewer than 100,000 inmates.


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