By Michael Doyle
The Sacramento Bee
WASHINGTON – A closely divided Supreme Court on Monday cited “serious constitutional violations” in California’s overcrowded prisons and ordered the state to abide by aggressive plans to fix the problem.
In a decision closely watched by other states, the court by a 5-4 margin concluded the prison overcrowding violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Pointedly, the court rejected California’s bid for more time and leeway.
“The violations have persisted for years,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. “They remain uncorrected.”
Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. today issued the following statement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Plata.
“The Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s decision that California must reduce its prison population,” Brown stated.
“In its ruling, the Supreme Court recognized that the enactment of AB 109 is key to meeting this obligation.
“We must now secure full and constitutionally guaranteed funding to put into effect all the realignment provisions contained in AB 109.
“As we work to carry out the Court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety.”
The court agreed that a prisoner-release plan devised by a three-judge panel is necessary in order to alleviate the overcrowding. The court also upheld the two-year deadline imposed by the three-judge panel.
“For years, the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs,” Kennedy wrote.
Driving the point home, the court’s majority made the highly unusual if not unprecedented move of including stark black-and-white photographs of a jam-packed room at Mule Creek State Prison and cages at Salinas Valley State Prison. Conservative dissenters, in turn, warned dire consequences will result.
“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 felons,” Justice Antonin Scalia declared.
Eighteen states — including Texas, Alaska and South Carolina — explicitly supported California’s bid for more leeway in reducing prison overcrowding. These states worry that they, too, might face court orders to release inmates.
California’s 33 state prisons held about 147,000 inmates, at the time of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments last November. This is down from a high of some 160,000 previously cited in legal filings. The higher figure amounted to “190 percent of design capacity,” officials said.
Last year, a three-judge panel ordered California to reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years. That’s the equivalent of about 110,000 inmates.
“California’s prisons are bursting at the seams and are impossible to manage,” the three-judge panel wrote.
Even before the court ruled Monday, California officials began taking steps to cut the overcrowding.
Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed A.B. 109, which shifts to counties the responsibility for incarcerating many low-risk inmates. Up to 30,000 state prison inmates could be transferred to county jails over three years, under the bill; first, however, state officials must agree on a way to pay for it.
“The prison system has been a failure,” Brown stated when he signed the bill “Cycling (lower-level) offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation and impedes local law enforcement supervision.”
The overcrowding leads to inhumane and constitutionally impermissible conditions, judges and monitors warn.
One hundred and twelve California prison inmates died unnecessarily due to inadequate medical care in 2008 and 2009, analysts found. Acutely ill patients have been held in “cages, supply closets and laundry rooms” because of overcrowding, investigators found. California prison inmate suicides have been double the national average.
California officials retorted that they deserve more time to act.
Reducing overcrowding doesn’t necessarily mean that thousands of inmates will let loose. Alternatives include transferring some to other jurisdictions, diverting nonviolent inmates to jails and reforming parole so that fewer violators are returned to prison.
See Related: Crime Archive