The Supreme Court took up the issue of overcrowded prisons in California today, as a lawyer for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger argued that a federal court order mandating the state to reduce its prison population by 40,000 over two years was too drastic and would endanger public safety.
Carter G. Phillips, representing California's government, called the order "extraordinary and unprecedented" and said that it would force the state to release thousands of prisoners. He said that the state was making progress in improving prison conditions on its own and that the federal court should not have interfered with the state's progress.
The controversy arose in 2009 when a panel of three federal judges ruled that crowding in California's prisons violated prisoners' constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. The panel based its decision on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), passed by Congress in 1996, which allows federal courts, in certain circumstances, to order caps on prison population to remedy constitutional violations. With the state appealing, the order has not gone into effect.
Several of the Court's more liberal members pounced on Phillips' argument that the state could handle the problem, pointing out that prisoners have argued for years in some cases that they were not receiving adequate health care.
"One case has been pending 20 years," argued Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "How much longer do we have to wait?"
Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited the high suicide rates in prison. "When are you going to avoid needless deaths?" she asked.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is from California, said, "At some point the court has to say you have been given enough time."
Phillips acknowledged that in the past, prison conditions had led to constitutional violations, but he said California needs more time to implement a comprehensive plan, including construction of new facilities and out-of-state transfers of prisoners to ease the overcrowding.
Lawyers for the prisoners argued that the federal court order did not mandate the release of prisoners and said that the reduction could be achieved through transfers or credits given to prisoners exhibiting good behavior.
But Justice Samuel Alito was skeptical.
"If I were a citizen of California," he said, " I would be concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners."
Alito asked Donald Specter of the Prison Law Center, the public interest law firm representing prisoners, about recidivism rates. Specter acknowledged that the rates of recidivism for so-called low-risk prisoners were 17 percent.
Alito pointed out that would be about 3,000 prisoners. "This is going to have an effect on public safety," he said.
Though California argues it California is tackling the problem on its own terms, members of the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association -- representing prison guards -- filed a brief in support of the forced population reduction. They argue that the state is risking the health of prison personnel as well as prisoners.
"Due to overcrowding," lawyers for the association write, "California uses converted gymnasiums to house hundreds of inmates on double- and triple-stacked bunks. In these prison 'dormitories' there are normally only one or two correctional officers to supervise approximately 200 inmates."
But Kent S. Scheidegger of the victims' rights group Criminal Justice Legal Foundation argues that a release or transfer of prisoners will be harmful. "Both experience and common sense tell us that such an order creates a grave danger to public safety. "
Eighteen states have filed a brief on behalf of California, fearful that they too could face prisoner release orders due to prison overcrowding.