Supreme Court orders California to slash prison population by more than 30,000
In a 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court says severe overcrowding in the prisons violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. A minority opinion offers a sharp dissent.
California Department of Corrections/AP/File
A sharply divided US Supreme Court ordered California Monday to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates, nearly a quarter of those incarcerated, saying the overcrowding in the state’s prisons violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The 5-to-4 ruling in the case, Brown v. Plata, upheld a ruling from a three-judge panel in California that called for the state to release between 38,000 and 46,000 inmates to attain a population of 110,000, still more than 137 percent of the system’s capacity. Since that panel’s 2009 ruling, California has transferred 9,000 prisoners to county jails.
Deficiencies in California’s prison system have led to “needless suffering and death,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority. “After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effective absent a reduction in the prison system population.”
Accompanying Justice Kennedy’s opinion was an appendix showing three pictures of the overcrowded facilities.
Critics of California's prison system contend the cells are so overrun with inmates that proper care has been decimated. Kennedy cited examples of prisoners with physical or mental health needs having to wait months for inadequate care. One was an inmate who was held for nearly 24 hours in a cage and standing in a pool of his own urine. Others died while seeking medical attention that was seemingly delayed because of the backlog of cases.
"If a prison deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation," Kennedy wrote. Joining Kennedy's opinion were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer.
The majority ruling is “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history,” Justice Scalia wrote. “The vast majority of inmates most generously rewarded by the release order … do not form part of any aggrieved class even under the Court’s expansive notion of constitutional violation. Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym." His opinion was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the separate dissent written by Justice Alito that questioned the wisdom of giving federal judges the authority to run state penal systems. Their dissent also faulted the majority for not taking into greater consideration the recent progress of state officials to improve prison conditions and the concerns about public safety.
“The majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California,” Alito wrote.
State officials in California will have two years to comply with the order, and they may ask for more time.
As state officials try to figure out how to implement the order – possibly by transferring prisoners to other jurisdictions, or try alternatives from electronic cuffs to tents – civil libertarians, legal analysts and law makers are hotly debating how the system became so overcrowded in the first place. There are over 142,000 inmates in 33 adult California prisons.
“Constitutional violations do not wait for recessions or booms. A violation is a violation regardless of whether the state has a surplus or is on the edge of bankruptcy,” says Jessica Levinson, Director of Political Reform for the Center for Governmental Studies. “It is also time for legislators and members of the electorate to focus not only on the fact that prisons are overcrowded, but why they are so overcrowded,” she says.
Conventional wisdom holds that “three-strikes, you’re out laws” are one of the main reasons for the overcrowding. Riding a “get tough on crime” wave, California in 1994 became the second state in the nation to significantly increase the prison sentences of convicted felons who previously had been convicted of a violent crime or serious felony, and to severely limit judge’s freedom to give punishment other than a prison sentence.
Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation, expressed disappointment that the Supreme Court “did not consider the numerous improvements made in health-care delivery to inmates in the past five years, as well as the significant reduction in the inmate population.”
“California’s inmate population has been reduced to levels not seen since 1995, and non-traditional beds have been eliminated by nearly 13,000,” he said. “We’ve come a long way in both population reduction measures and in the quality of care given to inmates.”
Joel Jacobsen, an assistant attorney general in the criminal appeals division for New Mexico, says the high court’s decision brings attention to the issue of overcrowding which produces reduced institutional control.
“When prisoners cannot get away from each other, power hierarchies inevitably develop, and prison gangs are the result. It should always be remembered that almost all of the prisoners will be released sooner or later. Forcing prisoners to adapt to a prison society that bears no relation to normal human society is only making it less likely that they will ever be able to function as normal, productive humans on the outside.”
Villanova criminal justice professor Kelly Welch says the decision is “actually a very practical decision,” that will help spotlight the consequences of voter choices to implement three strikes laws in the first place, which have not lived up to their promise of reducing crime.
“There is substantial criminological evidence that the incarceration binge of the last 30 years has actually not reduced crime. Thus, this has been an expense with no appreciable effect on crime. The decision of the Court to allow California to release a percentage of its inmates is probably a smart one, as it will reduce costs as well as treat the inmates that remain incarcerated more ethically by reducing overcrowding.”
She and others note, however that a primary concern is if there are no resources or transition supports for those inmates.
“There is a high likelihood that most of those released inmates can lead law-abiding lives as long as they get assistance in getting jobs, housing, and other essentials. If they are just dumped outside the door of the prison with nothing but the clothes they walked in there with, then they may find themselves with few legal options for survival.”
Says Eric Reslock, chief of external affairs for the California Prison Industry Authority, a rehabilitative work program, “This decision increases the liklihood that people are going to reoffend and go back to prison.”