Nov. 30, 2010 -- 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.