California, at Supreme Court, fights judicial order on prison overcrowding

The Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday in a California prison case. At issue is whether a three-judge court overstepping its authority when it ordered inmates released to curb overcrowding.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Inmates walk down the long hallway on their way out to the recreation yard at the Deuel Vocational Institution near Tracy, Calif. The Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday examining a judicial order requiring California to release as many as 46,000 inmates from the state’s overcrowded prison system in two years.

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday takes up a case examining a judicial order requiring California to release as many as 46,000 inmates from the state’s overcrowded prison system in two years.

At issue is whether the special three-judge court overstepped its legal authority under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) when it ordered the inmates released.

The 1996 law was enacted to restrict the sweep of judicial oversight in prisoner rights cases. Lawyers for the state of California are arguing that the California-based judges ignored a congressional requirement that judicial orders be closely tied to resolving the specific problem raised in each case.

The release order was issued in a case challenging the adequacy of medical care and mental health services for California inmates. Plaintiffs alleged that medical and mental health services in California prisons were so deficient that they amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

The judges determined that chronic overcrowding was a root cause of the poor services and that the quality of treatment would not improve until the prison population was reduced.

California complained that the judges' order for a large-scale release of inmates usurps the state’s power to run its own prisons and threatens public safety.

“It is clear that the PLRA does not require (or even permit) what the three-judge court has ordered here,” wrote Washington lawyer Carter Phillips in his brief for California. “Using the guise of providing healthcare that complies with the Eighth Amendment, the court below has accepted [the inmates’] invitation to undertake comprehensive institutional reform directed at prison overcrowding,” Mr. Phillips said.

Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a special three-judge court may be convened and may issue a prison release order. But the judges can do so only when they find by clear and convincing evidence that “crowding is the primary cause” of the violation and that no alternative remedy exists.

A group of police chiefs, sheriffs, probation officers, district attorneys, and legislators intervened in the lawsuit to oppose the ordered prisoner release. They argued in their brief that Congress passed the PLRA to keep judges out of the business of running prisons.

“The prison release orders in this case typify the federal interference with a state’s ability to manage its prisons that the PLRA sought to eliminate,” wrote San Francisco lawyer Steven Kaufhold in a brief to the court.

Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office based in Berkeley, Calif., emphasizes in his brief that medical care in state prisons is still in a state of crisis despite eight years of judicial oversight.

“Prisoners are dying unnecessarily at the alarming rate of one every eight days because they do not receive basic medical care from the state,” Mr. Specter writes.

Specter says severe prison overcrowding has undercut the effectiveness of prior judicial orders.

“The court did not order the release of a single prisoner. Instead, the order allows the state to reduce crowding by methods of its own choosing,” Specter writes.

He said the state could build more prisons, transfer prisoners to other jurisdictions, or use an early-release program. “The court’s order respects the state’s right to make policy decisions on how to remedy the grave and harmful conditions,” he said. “It is the only effective remedy to a prison crisis that has plagued the state for nearly a decade.”

An ongoing budget crisis in California has made construction of new prisons an unlikely solution. But state officials insist that the release of a large number of inmates will jeopardize public safety.

More than 156,000 inmates are held in California prisons designed to house 80,000. The judges ordered the state to reduce the prisons' population by roughly 46,000. The court gave the state 24 months to comply.

Eighteen states joined in a friend-of-the-court brief backing California in the case. They include Louisiana, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

The case is Schwarzenegger v. Plata (09-1233). A decision is expected by the end of the term in June.

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