A divided U.S. Supreme Court, pointing to “serious constitutional violations” in California’s overcrowded prison system, upheld an order requiring the state to cut its inmate population by tens of thousands.
In a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the justices said the order, the largest of its kind in U.S. history, was an appropriate step to remedy the constitutionally inadequate level of medical and mental health care prisoners are receiving.
“The medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons falls below the standard of decency that inheres in the Eighth Amendment,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, referring to the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. “This extensive and ongoing constitutional violation requires a remedy, and a remedy will not be achieved without a reduction in overcrowding.”
The original court order required California to cut its prison population by 46,000 within two years, and the state has already begun taking steps to comply. The state still must cut another 32,000 inmates from its prison rolls, according to advocates for the inmates.
“This landmark decision not only will help prevent prisoners from dying of malpractice and neglect, but it will make the prisons safer for the staff, improve public safety and save the taxpayers billions of dollars,” said Donald Specter, the lawyer who argued the case for the inmates and serves as director of the Prison Law Office in San Quentin, California,
Gil Duran, spokesman for Governor Jerry Brown, wasn’t immediately available for comment. California’s total prison population now stands at 163,000, with almost 10,000 of those inmates being held out of state.
Kennedy said the state could seek an extension from a lower court, perhaps pushing the deadline back to 2016.
The ruling won’t necessarily mean that prisoners will be released. The state has been exploring other options, including channeling new parole offenders and low-level felons into county jails.
Even so, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in dissent that the majority “is gambling with the safety of the people of California.”
“I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims,” Alito wrote for himself and Chief Justice John Roberts.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also dissented. Writing for the pair, Scalia said the Supreme Court “affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.”
Kennedy said reductions could occur “in a manner calculated to avoid an undue negative effect on public safety.”
He said overcrowding had already caused “needless suffering and death” in the state’s prisons, which had operated at 200 percent of design capacity for at least 11 years. Kennedy said that as many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet and that suicidal inmates have been held in cages the size of a telephone booth because of a shortage of treatment beds.
In one instance, a man held in such a cage for almost 24 hours was “standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic,” Kennedy wrote.
The court took the unusual step of attaching three photos to the majority opinion, including one depicting the holding cages.
“Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons,” Kennedy wrote.
Federal Prison Law
The majority rejected the state’s contentions that the order runs afoul of a law that limits the power of federal judges to hear prisoner-rights lawsuits.
California, the nation’s most populous state, didn’t contest that its prisoners have been held in unconstitutional conditions. In its appeal, the state focused solely on the remedy ordered by the lower court, arguing that officials should have been given more time to address the problems.
With an economy bigger than Russia’s, the state has coped with $100 billion of budget gaps over the past three years amid the global recession.
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