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Supreme Court Upholds California Prisoner Release

Tiffany Tsai |
May 23, 2011 | 1:05 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

The U. S. Supreme Court voted Monday in favor of a long-pending petition to reduce the prison population in California. According to the Los Angeles Times, 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners could join the population on the streets due to a three-judge panel ruling that inhumane overcrowding was in violation of the 8th Amendment, a ruling now upheld by Monday's 5-4 decision in Brown v. Plata. 

(via Creative Commons)
(via Creative Commons)

Governor Jerry Brown issued a statement after the verdict:

“The Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s decision that California must reduce its prison population. 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.”

Supporting the reduction were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, who offer their argument in the official syllabus. They cite a shortage of medical attention, exacerbated conditions in mentally ill prisoners, and danger to prison employees as chief reasons that California's prison system comprises an "extensive and ongoing consitutional violation."

Justice Antonin Scalia, supported by Justice Clarence Thomas, filed one dissent centered on the federal government overstepping its boundaries, reported the New York Times, while Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., and John G. Roberts, Jr., separately submitted a dissent based on public safety.

Currently, California's prison population stands at 143,000, almost double the designed capacity. The initial reduction decision from three-judge panel in a lower court has already caused 9,000 convicts to be released, but to reach the newly mandated 137.5% cap, the state must have no more than 110,000 in its prisons.

On the ACLU blog, the National Prison Project's David Fathi gave a warm commendation to the Supreme Court decision:

Today’s decision crystallizes the urgent need for California to invest in meaningful parole and sentencing reforms and alternatives to incarceration, especially for low-level, non-violent offenders. Reducing the number of people in prison not only would save state taxpayers half a billion dollars annually, it would lead to the implementation of truly rehabilitative programs that lower recidivism rates and create safer communities.

Considering the imminent release of many offenders who do not fall in the "low-level, non-violent" category, though, opinions diverge as to whether massive overcrowding or premature release is the greater evil. The Wall Street Journal characterizes the decision as one rife with dissent, in which justices voted according to their conservative and liberal orientations:

Passions ran high on both sides of the 5-4 decision. Justice Kennedy attached photographs of jam-packed prisons to his opinion, in which he cited the need for action to prevent "needless suffering and death."

Dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia said courts were acting beyond their proper powers. He called the district-court order "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history."

Though some say the decision is radical, others believe the injunction is defensible by an act aimed at preventing lawsuits by prisoners. The Prison Litigation Reform Act, passed in 1996, allows a federal court to interfere with state prison practices--even, at a very basic level, keeping people in prison--if certain conditions are met:

...a prisoner release order shall be entered only by a three-judge court in accordance with section 2284 of title 28, if...the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that--

(i) crowding is the primary cause of the violation of a Federal right; and

(ii) no other relief will remedy the violation of the Federal right.

It is possible, Bloomberg writes, that today's decision will not be the final word. Rather than releasing over thirty thousand prisoners in the next two years, the state could seek an extension to 2016 from a lower court. Also, since the ruling gives California leeway in choosing avenues toward prison downsizing, county jails remain a viable option for the prisoners squeezed out of the state system.

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