Supreme Court Ruling Could Free 40,000 Inmates
USATODAY.COM - The Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote Monday ruled California prison overcrowding unconstitutional and upheld an order that could force the release of about 40,000 inmates to solve longstanding problems with inmate medical care and mental disorders.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by the court's four liberals, declared that inmates' health and dignity had been severely compromised and that an immediate reduction of the prison population was necessary to remedy violations of prisoner rights.
The ruling marked a rare win for the high court's left wing on a social policy dilemma. That California's prison ills were well-documented and the state had faced court orders for more than ten years weighed heavily on the outcome.
"For years the medical and mental health care provided by California's prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners' basic health needs," Kennedy said, noting that as many as 200 prisoners may live in a gym and as many as 54 prisoners share a single toilet. "Efforts to remedy the (medical and mental health) violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California's prison system."
The four more conservative justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, dissented, and Justice Antonin Scalia took the rare step of reading portions of his statement from the bench Monday.
Scalia described the lower court order requiring release of tens of thousands of felons as "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history." He said it allowed judges to go "wildly beyond their institutional capacity."
Decades ago, federal courts were far more involved in helping correct societal problems and ensure civil rights, whether in prison overcrowding, school segregation or environmental concerns. That era faded in part because the increasingly conservative high court believed judges were treading on the domain of legislators.
The California case grew out of especially dire conditions. Kennedy noted that the state's prison population at one point was 156,000, nearly double the number the buildings were designed to hold. This led to horrific conditions, particularly for inmate mental health and medical care. Lawsuits at the heart of Monday's case were filed in 1990 and 2001.
Among the claims from lawyers were that "mentally ill prisoners have been found hanged to death in holding tanks where observation windows are obscured with smeared feces, and discovered catatonic in pools of their own urine after spending nights in locked cages."
Kennedy appended pictures to his opinion, including of "dry cages" used for inmates awaiting beds in a mental health unit.
"As a consequence of their own actions, prisoners may be deprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty," Kennedy acknowledged. "Yet the law and the Constitution demand recognition of certain other rights. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment."
A special three-judge district court that heard the prisoner cases had ordered the state to reduce prison population to 137.5% of design capacity and estimated that would require releasing 46,000 inmates.
The state has since lowered the population by at least 9,000, leaving about 37,000 more to be freed, Kennedy estimated. He noted that most of the prisoners who would be released would not be the ones with medical problems, rather those who would be eligible for good-time credits and early parole.
It was not immediately clear how quickly prison reductions would have to come, and Kennedy said the lower court would have to continue to monitor the situation. He said that the state may be able to show that progress in lowering the population makes the overall situation "less urgent."
California officials had urged the high court to reverse the population-limit order, saying violations of prisoner rights could be addressed through new construction, some prisoner transfers out of state and the hiring of more medical personnel. Yet that had long been the state's stance, and the three-judge panel said earlier measures had failed to sufficiently improve the system.
Scalia's dissent in Brown v. Plata was signed only by Justice Clarence Thomas.
Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito dissented separately. Alito, joined by Roberts, said the lower court decree violates federal law.
"The Constitution does not give federal judges the authority to run state penal systems," Alito wrote. "Decisions regarding state prisons have profound public safety and financial implications, and states are generally free to make these decisions as they choose."
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