US Supreme Court Calls for Release of 33,500 State Prison Inmates
A sharply divided US Supreme Court has upheld a 2009 order by a special three-judge panel ordering California to significantly reduce its prison overcrowding in order to provide adequate medical care to inmates.
The 5 to 4 ruling, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, gives the state two years in which to lower the population in its 33 prisons from 143,434 to 109,805 – roughly 33,500 inmates.
State GOP lawmakers — and several dissenting justices — say such a move will imperil public safety. The court’s majority says the releases won’t but suggests the state and the three-judge panel consider allowing more time to decrease the inmate population.
“As we work to carry out the court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety,” said Gov. Jerry Brown in a statement. The Democratic governor previously referred to the outcome of the ruling as a “Sword of Damocles” hanging over California’s head.
“This decision is a historic attack on the constitutional rights of states and the liberty of all Californians,” said Board of Equalization member George Runner who, as a former state senator, filed an amicus brief with his Republican colleagues urging the high court not to allow the inmate release.
“By flooding our neighborhoods with criminals, the Court will make one of highest taxed states in the nation among the most dangerous as well, further tarnishing the California dream,” Runner said in a statement.
What was formerly Schwarzenegger vs. Plata and is now Brown vs. Plata is the first major case to be decided by the high court involving 1996’s federal Prison Litigation Reform Act and the power of courts to release inmates because of overcrowding.
Plata is a consolidation of two long-running class action lawsuits brought against the state over medical care for inmates. The second lawsuit, Coleman vs. Schwarzenegger, involving mental health services for prisoners, was initially filed in 1991. Plata, 10 years later.
Both claim that care for inmates violates the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment of the incarcerated.
Among the specific allegations is substandard screening for inmates at reception centers, slow response to emergencies and insufficient nurses and doctors.
The high court agreed.
“This case arises from serious constitutional violations in California’s prison system. The violations have persisted for years. They remain uncorrected,” read the first three sentences of Kennedy’s majority opinion.
“Overcrowding has overtaken the limited resources of prison staff; imposed demands well beyond the capacity of medical and mental health facilities; and created unsanitary and unsafe conditions that make progress in the provision of care difficult or impossible to achieve,” Kennedy writes.
The court’s 52-page opinion says 46,000 inmates will be released. The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says the number is approximately 33,500. While the total persons incarcerated in California is just under 163,000 only the 143,434 housed in the state’s 33 prisons are affected by the ruling.
Even before the high court’s ruling, the two lawsuits have dramatically affected the operation of the state prison system. Special masters have been appointed by federal judges, a receiver now controls decision-making on prison medical care and more than 70 orders from federal judges have mandated various policy changes in prison policy.
There have also been legal tussles between the state and the receiver over how much money is needed to solve the problem as well as legislation aimed at building more medical facilities, speeding the release of inmates and reducing the number of parolees returning to state prison.
The order of the three-judge panel – the only entity that can issue an inmate reduction order under federal law – came after a four month trial ending in February 2009 in which they concluded overcrowding was the chief cause of the substandard inmate health care.
As written, the order upheld by the Supreme Court says within six months the state must reduce the prison population to 167 percent of design capacity, to 155 percent within one year, 147 percent within 18 months and – at the two-year mark – 137.5 percent.
But Kennedy said the three-judge panel can make “further amendments to the existing order” and said “the state may wish to move for modification of the three-judge court’s order to extend the deadline.”
The three-judge panel “may grant such a request,” Kennedy writes – a point dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia criticizes.
“What is really happening here is that the Court, overcome by common sense, disapproves of the results reached by the District Court but cannot remedy them (it thinks) by applying ordinary standards of appellate review.
“It has therefore selected a solution unknown in our legal system: A deliberately ambiguous set of suggestions on how to modify the injunction, just deferential enough so that it can say with a straight face that it is ‘affirming,’ just stern enough to put the District Court on notice that it will likely get reversed if it does not follow them. In doing this, the Court has aggrandized itself, grasping authority that appellate courts are not supposed to have, and using it to enact a compromise solution with no legal basis other than the Court’s say-so.”
In a second dissent, Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with the state’s contentions.
“I would reverse the decision … for three interrelated reasons,” Alito writes.
“First, the three-judge court improperly refused to consider evidence concerning present conditions in the California prison system. Second, the court erred in holding that no remedy short of a massive prisoner release can bring the California system into compliance with the Eighth Amendment. Third, the court gave inadequate weight to the impact of its decree on public safety.”
Kennedy notes in the majority opinion that California has made progress reducing its prison population since February 2009 when the three-judge panel issued its order.
“The two-year deadline, however, will not begin to run until this Court issues its judgment. When that happens, the state will have already had over two years to begin complying with the order of the three-judge court,” Kennedy writes. “The state has used the time productively. At oral argument, the state indicated it had reduced its prison population by approximately 9,000 persons since the decision of the three-judge court.”
Brown used the ruling to tout his realignment proposal that would transfer parolees and non-violent offenders from state prisons to county jails. Republicans oppose the move.
Said Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat:
“Today’s decision should end the political debate over realignment of our correctional system. Combined with the modest progress we’ve already made in previous budget actions, this solution is the only responsible alternative to meeting the legal mandate while providing the best protection possible for Californians.”
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