Tony Avelar / The Christian Science Monitor.
Inmates walk down the long hallway on their way out to the recreation yard, at the Deuel Vocational Institution near Tracy, California. Due to the jail overcrowding, the inmates get only 4 hours of recreation a week.

Supreme Court: Can judges tell California to release 40,000 prisoners?

A three-judge panel ordered California officials to reduce the state’s prison population by 30,000 to 40,000 inmates. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case.

A sharply divided US Supreme Court on Tuesday confronted the thorny issue of how best to improve the quality of medical and mental health care in California’s overcrowded prison system.

At issue in the case is whether a three-judge panel overstepped its authority earlier this year when it ordered California officials to reduce the state’s prison population by 30,000 to 40,000 inmates to resolve a lawsuit over prison health care.

The case, Schwarzenegger v. Plata, pits the power of the federal judiciary to conduct prison oversight against the authority of state officials to run their own prisons.

A federal judge has found that medical and mental health care in California’s prisons is so poor that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The state has promised to improve inmate health care, but progress has been slow.

California has watched its prison population rise to nearly double its design capacity. The state houses 144,000 inmates in 33 prisons built to hold 80,000 prisoners. California has been struggling with a crushing budget deficit.

Although a receiver was appointed to help solve the health-care problem, the judges eventually took the matter into their own hands. They decided that the health-care issue would never be resolved until the state confronted prison overcrowding. The three-judge panel ordered that the prison population be reduced as a necessary means to resolve the health-care lawsuit.

California is asking the justices to overturn that judicial order, saying it violates the terms of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The 1996 law restricts the power of the courts to issue broad rulings in prisoner-rights cases.

“This is supposed to be an order or remedy of last resort,” California’s lawyer, Carter Phillips, told the justices. He said the three-judge panel acted prematurely, before the state had time to solve the problems on its own.

“This has been going on for 20 years,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg replied. She said that federal judges had issued a long series of orders to force California to improve prison conditions, but that none had worked.

“So how much longer do we have to wait,” she asked. “Another 20 years?”

The high-profile case appears to have split the justices into familiar liberal/conservative camps, with the liberal side supporting the judicial order and the conservative side expressing concerns about it.

In the center is Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose comments seemed both supportive and critical of the court’s prison-reduction order.

After Mr. Phillips suggested that California officials had achieved considerable improvements in prison conditions and should be given more time, Justice Kennedy interjected: “The problem I have with that is that at some point, the court has to say you’ve been given enough time and it is now time for a remedy.”

He called the court’s action: “a perfectly reasonable decision.”

Phillips said that under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Congress imposed restrictions on the courts, including that courts allow a reasonable amount of time for compliance.

“I recognize of course that Congress had imposed a special duty on us,” Kennedy responded. “But I think it means that [prison population reduction] must not be ordered unless that is the only efficacious remedy. And it seems to me there is massive expert testimony to support that proposition on the part of the prisoners.”

Later, Kennedy questioned the prisoners’ lawyer, Donald Specter of Berkeley, Calif., about whether expert witnesses in the case had endorsed a less dramatic prison-release order.

Prior to the ruling by the three-judge panel, the state’s prison system was operating at 190 percent of capacity. In its ruling, the three-judge panel gave California two years to reduce its prison population to 137 percent of its design capacity.

Kennedy said he’d found testimony in the court record by experts suggesting that the health-care problems could be resolved with a prison population at 145 percent of capacity. But the three-judge panel did not address that issue in its decision, Kennedy said.

Kennedy’s comments are potentially significant to the outcome of the case, because the Prison Litigation Reform Act requires judges to closely tailor remedies to address identified problems and to embrace the least intrusive means necessary.

If a federal judge can resolve a pending violation by ordering a lesser remedy (or smaller population reduction), the Prison Litigation Reform Act appears to require the lesser remedy.

Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether the early release of prison inmates might cause an increase in crime. “If I was a citizen of California,” he said, “I would be very concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners.”

A similar release order in Philadelphia, he said, resulted in measurable increases in murders, rapes, and assaults.

Prison populations can be reduced without triggering an increase in crime, Mr. Specter said. He suggested greater use of good-time credits and transfer programs. California routinely releases 120,000 prisoners on parole each year, he noted.

Justice Alito asked what the recidivist rate is for former prisoners in California.

Seventy percent of released prisoners return to prison within three years, Specter said. Some of those repeat offenders, he said, are picked up for minor parole violations.

The state has the option of pursuing rehabilitation programs that are less expensive than prison, Specter added.

A decision in Schwarzenegger v. Plata (09-1233) is expected by June.

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