California officials are gearing up to reduce the prison population by tens of thousands in the wake of an order by the United States Supreme Court.
In a controversial and highly anticipated ruling on May 23, the United States Supreme Court affirmed a federal three-judge panel’s prior ruling that: overcrowding in California’s 33 prisons violates the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment, prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The Supreme Court’s contentious 5 to 4 ruling orders California to remedy overcrowding within two years, which may require the state to release tens of thousands of prisoners. Though the federal ruling affirms that the overcrowding is unconstitutional, it leaves fixing the problem entirely to the state, which was also the position of the three-judge panel.
California prisons chief Matthew Cate commented the same day, “Ninety-five percent of California inmates will eventually be released and become our neighbors. More than 10,000 offenders a month are released from overcrowded state prisons and return back to our local communities.
“Our goal is to form local coalitions to help returning offenders make a successful transition back to the community by providing training, mentoring and other services.”
Today the court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history: an order requiring California to release the staggering number of 46,000 convicted criminals. -Justice Scalia
The federal District Court’s three-judge panel is a result of the Prison Litigation Act of 1996. It consolidates two federal lawsuits, Coleman v. Brown 1990 and Plata v. Brown 2001, in which the state conceded that inadequate medical care violated prisoners’ 8th Amendment rights.
The District Court put the California prison health care system under a federal receivership in 2005. The receiver agreed that the system-wide problems in delivering constitutional levels of health care could not be remedied due to severe overcrowding.
In a 2010 ruling—more than 12 years since the original civil rights cases were filed by prisoners—a frustrated court ordered the release of prisoners to remedy the constitutional infringements. The order came after the state failed to heed numerous recommendations to mend the ongoing problems.
The state appealed to the Supreme Court, challenging the authority of the District Court and the weight of its prisoner release order, noting the impact on public safety. However, the state lost its petition on every level.
Justice Kennedy in the majority decision wrote, “The overcrowding is the primary cause…specifically the severe and unlawful mistreatment of prisoners through grossly inadequate provision of medical and mental health care.”
In essence, the ruling gives the three Judges: Senior Judge Thelton Henderson, of San Francisco, Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt of Los Angeles and Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento, who are broadly seen as the liberal end of the U.S. District Court, supreme authority requiring the states to provide constitutionally mandated levels of health care to prisoners.
The ruling affirms the District court’s order that the only sufficient cure is to cap the prison population at 137.5 percent of facility design capacities.
The order gives the state latitude on how to lower the prison population to comply with the order. However, the Court “found that no realistic possibility that California could build itself out of this crisis, particularly given the State’s ongoing fiscal problems.” The court also rejected the state’s assertion that they could reduce the population by sending prisoners to out-of-state facilities.
The U.S. District Court recommends that: “The State may employ measures, including good-time credits and diversion of low-risk offenders and technical parole violators to community-based programs…”
In anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling, California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed Assembly Bill 109 into law, which will shift thousands of inmates from state prisons to county jails. Brown said the state will pay for the costs.
“The prison system has been a failure. Cycling (lower-level) offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation and impedes local law enforcement supervision,” said Brown.
The Supreme Court’s ruling does not necessarily mean that prisoners will be set free. The state can take many avenues to meet the population cap without releasing tens of thousands of inmates over the next two years.
How the state remedies the overcrowding problem will be closely watched by other states such as Texas and Alaska, who supported California in lowering their prison population without court intervention, and have prison-overcrowding problems themselves.
The Supreme Court ruling, in which Justice Kennedy wrote the decision and Justices Ginsberg, Bryer, Sotomayor, and Kagan voted for, came from a new and liberal leaning court. Two of the five Justices, Sotomayor and Kagan are newly appointed by Democratic President Obama.