Moral Low Ground

US Government

U.S. Supreme Court Orders California to Reduce Population of Overcrowded Prisons by 33,000 Inmates

The United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 yesterday that the state of California must reduce its unconstitutionally overcrowded prison population by more than 33,000 inmates. The case, Brown v. Plata, was an affirmation of a lower court ruling that found the medical and mental health care provided to inmates to be so poor that it endangered their lives and violated the US Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. A three-judge panel ruled in 2009 that acute overcrowding was to blame for this deficient inmate care.

“The violations have persisted for years,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. “They remain uncorrected… After one prisoner was assaulted in a crowded gymnasium, prison staff did not even learn of the injury until after the prisoner had been dead for several hours.”

According to the Sacramento Bee, the majority listed several other examples of cruel and unusual conditions in California’s state prisons: 54 prisoners sharing one toilet, suicidal inmates locked away for extended periods in “telephone booth-sized cages without toilets,” as many as 50 sick inmates locked in a 12-by-20 foot cage for five hours without medical treatment.

The Supreme Court ruling gives the state two years two slash its inmate population from 143,435 to 109,805, a reduction of 33,630 prisoners, in 33 state penitentiaries. A system designed to house 80,000 inmates has held as many as twice that number; currently it is at 180% of capacity. The three-judge panel ruling in 2009 mandated a reduction to 137.5% of capacity.

California's powder keg prisons are bursting at the seams. (Photo: CA Dep't of Corrections and Rehabilitation)
















How will California accomplish this daunting task? Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has a plan. His budget proposal includes a measure to move thousands of nonviolent inmates and parole violators from state penitentiaries into county jails. The Supreme Court cited this scheme as a sign “that the prison population can be reduced in a manner calculated to avoid an undue negative effect on public safety.”

Said Governor Brown: “As we work to carry out the court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety.”

But conservative lawmakers, as well as conservative justices on the Supreme Court, aren’t buying it. Justice Antonin Scalia called the decision “radical” and a “judicial travesty.” He wrote that prisoners who will be released early because of the ruling “will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”

“People that go to the state prison system aren’t there because they stole a pack of chewing gum,” state Senate Republican Leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga told the Bee. “There are some very serious people there.”

Still, the ruling was hailed by many progressive groups. In a statement, ACLU National Prison Project director David Fathi declared:

“The Supreme Court has done the right thing by acknowledging what even the state itself has not disputed – that the egregious and extreme overcrowding in California’s prisons contributes to a failure by the state to keep its prisoners safe by providing the basic levels of medical and mental health care mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Today’s decision crystallizes the urgent need for California to invest in meaningful parole and sentencing reforms and alternatives to incarceration, especially for low-level, non-violent offenders. Reducing the number of people in prison not only would save state taxpayers half a billion dollars annually, it would lead to the implementation of truly rehabilitative programs that lower recidivism rates and create safer communities.”

The justices that sided with the majority were: Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Dissenting were: Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John G. Roberts

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