May 23, 2011 -- A bitterly divided Supreme Court today upheld a lower court ruling that California must reduce its prison population by at least 30,000 to alleviate overcrowding.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by the four liberal members of the court, acknowledged that the order is "unprecedented" in its "sweep and extent" but said that the crowded conditions amounted to violations of prisoners' constitutional rights against cruel and unusual treatment and must be remedied.
Kennedy noted that at the time of the court order California's correctional facilities held 156,000 inmates, nearly double the number they were designed to hold.
"The medical and mental health care provided by California's prison falls below the standard of decency," Kennedy wrote. "This extensive and ongoing constitutional violation requires a remedy, and a remedy will not be achieved without a reduction in overcrowding."
Kennedy said the order gives the State of California the power to choose how to reduce its prison population, but said the progress should be monitored by the three-judge panel that issued the original order.
"Absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfers or other means...the state will be required to release some number of prisoners before their full sentences have been served," he said.
The majority acknowledged that if the state is able to "reveal targeted and effective remedies" that will end the constitutional violations it may not have to significantly decrease the general prison population.
Kennedy said that the state could ask for an extension of the original two-year deadline to five years, but that the state should begin to devise a system to select prisoners "least likely to jeopardize public safety."
The four conservative justices issued two separate dissents.
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, read his dissent from the bench, saying the majority's decision, "affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history." The order "ignores bedrock limitations on the power" of judges and "takes federal courts wildly beyond their institutional capacity."
Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "The Constitution does not give federal judges the authority to run state penal systems." Alito said that the three-judge order would lead to the premature release of criminals, the number of which is "equivalent of three Army divisions."
He called the majority's decision "gambling with the safety of the people of California" and warned it could lead to a "grim roster of victims."
The controversy around California's overcrowded prisons arose in 2009 when a panel of three federal judges ruled that conditions 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, or order caps on prison populations.
California appealed the decision to the Supreme Court arguing that the three-judge panel had no jurisdiction to rule on the issue and that it didn't give California a reasonable amount of time to comply with previous court orders directed at remedying the problem.
Carter G. Phillips, an attorney representing California, 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 interfere with the state's progress.
The case stems from two separate lawsuits that had been wending their way through California courts for years challenging the health care available in the prison system.
Citing horrific prison conditions, lawyers for the prisoners argued in court briefs that because of overcrowding the state has failed to meet its obligation "to ensure the safety of guards and prison personnel , the public and the prisoners themselves."
Donald Specter, of Prison Law Office, a non-profit law firm dedicated to prisoner's rights, represented the prisoners and released a statement praising the decision. "This landmark decision will not only 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."
The court took the unusual step of including pictures in its ruling that depicted the conditions in the prisons including so called "dry cages" meant to serve as holding cells for those prisoners waiting to receive mental health care.