Supreme Court upholds order to reduce California prison population

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] in Brown v. Plata [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] to uphold the order requiring California to release up to 46,000 prisoners to remedy the state's overcrowded prisons [JURIST news archive]. In the 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court concluded that the extreme overcrowding of the California prison system is causing inmates to receive inadequate medical care in violation of the Eighth Amendment [text]. In August 2009, a special panel of federal judges ordered [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] California to reduce its prison population by about 46,000 inmates or construct more facilities to handle the prisoners. It is apparent that California is unable to build the prisons and will have to release the prisoners. The court found the inability of the prison system to provide the "basic sustenance" of medical care is an Eighth Amendment violation that the courts must remedy: "A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society." Kennedy also attached photographs depicting prisoners being forced to live in bunk-beds lined up in an open room and depicting small telephone-booth sized holding cells for prisoners waiting for a mental health crisis bed. The court said that the California prison system is operating at nearly 200 percent capacity. Three justices joined Justice Antonin Scalia in dissent, saying "the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation's history." He argued that the system-wide problems did not establish any actual individual Eighth Amendment violations and, even if there were, the injunction forcing the state to release prisoners is beyond the court's authority.

The court heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] last November in this case, previously known as Schwarzenegger v. Plata [oral arguments transcript, PDF], over the order to release prisoners by the three-judge panel. The panel approved [order, PDF; JURIST report] a revised prison reduction plan [text, PDF] in January 2010, but action on the plan has been delayed, pending this Supreme Court appeal. Counsel for the state of California argued that the "extraordinary and unprecedented order ... requiring the release of between 36,000 and 45,000 inmates ... is extraordinarily premature." Counsel for the prisoners argued that the court must allow the lower court to provide a remedy for 20 years of overcrowding that has violated inmates' constitutional rights.

 

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