Calif. Must Reduce Prison Crowding: High Court

By Kenneth Jost
Supreme Court Editor, CQ Press
      The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a sweeping prison-overcrowding order that may force the state of California to reduce its inmate population by up to 46,000 over the next five years.
      The 5-4 ruling cited what the high court called “serious constitutional violations” in California’s prison system in upholding a decision issued by a three-judge federal court in August 2009 to reduce the state’s inmate population by nearly one-third. The state’s prisons held about 156,000 inmates when the case was argued in December, according to the court, nearly double the stated capacity of the 33 facilities.
      Dissenting justices called the ruling “radical” and warned it would have “a major and deleterious effect on public safety.”
      Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a Californian, said that “serious and pervasive overcrowding” in the state’s prisons has resulted in medical and mental-health care “below the standard of decency” required by the Eighth Amendment. The amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.”
      The ruling in a case now called Brown v. Plata came in two consolidated class action suits by California inmates, one filed in 1990 challenging care provided to inmates with mental-health problems and the other filed in 2001 challenging general medical care. Despite a series of court orders to improve care, Kennedy said the constitutional violations “remain uncorrected.”
      The decision pitted Kennedy and the court’s four Democratic-appointed liberal justices against four Republican-appointed conservatives: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and associate justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Kennedy spent an unusually long time, about 10 minutes, summarizing his opinion in a forceful if understated monotone. “It’s a long opinion,” Kennedy said as he lost his place at one point.
      Scalia followed with a summary nearly as long of the dissenting opinion he wrote for himself and Thomas. Scalia called the lower court order that the majority was affirming “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.”
      Separately, Alito, joined by Roberts, said the majority was “gambling with the safety of the people of California.” During oral arguments, Alito challenged the lawyer representing the inmates by pointing to a federal court’s prisoner-release order in Philadelphia years earlier that he said had resulted in a crime wave by the newly freed inmates.
      “I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims,” Alito wrote at the end of his dissent. “I hope that I am wrong.”
      The ruling comes at a time when prisons around the country are grappling with overcrowding, though no other state has seen the kind of crisis or faced such protracted litigation as California. But a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union said the ruling “crystallizes the need for states across the country” to reduce prison crowding through improved parole and rehabilitative programs.
      In his opinion, Kennedy said that the ruling would not force California state to reduce overcrowding “in an indiscriminate manner.” In sending the case back for further proceedings, Kennedy said the state could ask the three-judge court to extend the deadline or modify its order. Scalia called the passage “a bizarre coda” that he expected the lower court to ignore.
      The litigation has spanned the tenure of five California governors. Corrections officials have taken some steps to reduce overcrowding through prisoner releases, but court-appointed special masters overseeing the litigation found the moves inadequate.
      While in office, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked for funds to build more prisons, but the legislature, beset by a multibillion-dollar fiscal crisis, balked. In his opinion, Kennedy noted that experts had testified that there was “no realistic possibility” that the state could “build itself out” of the overcrowding.
      The case reached the Supreme Court under the name Schwarzenegger v. Plata, 09-1233. The name was changed after Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., a Democrat, took office in January.

      For background, see Peter Katel, “Downsizing Prisons,” CQ Researcher, March 11, 2011; Kenneth Jost, “States and Federalism,” CQ Researcher, Oct. 15, 2010.