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Divided Supreme Court Orders California to Ease Prison Overcrowding

May 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Monday that the living conditions in overcrowded California prisons threatened inmates' health and violated constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. Ray Suarez discusses the outcome with The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle, who was in the courtroom.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A divided Supreme Court today ordered California to release thousands of inmates from its overcrowded prisons.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: The justices ruled five-to-four that the packed living conditions threatened inmates’ health and violated constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. California has two years to cut its inmate population from 143,000 to 110,000, still well over capacity for facilities designed to house 80,000.

In a rare move, Justice Anthony Kennedy incorporated black-and-white photographs into his written opinion. The images of crammed sleeping quarters and walkways depicted what he referred to as violent, unsanitary, and chaotic conditions in California prisons.

Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal was in the courtroom, and joins us now.

Marcia, this is an old case. What was the original complaint and what were the petitioners asking of the state of California?

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: Well, Ray, this case stems from two class-action lawsuits, one filed in 1990 involving substandard care for prisoners suffering from serious mental illnesses, the second lawsuit filed in 2001 generally for deficient medical care for prisoners.

The lawsuits claimed that these conditions in the prisons violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Justice Anthony Kennedy was the — the lead writer on the majority opinion. What did he and the other justices conclude?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the issue before the court was whether a special three-judge court, lower court here, correctly applied the federal Prison Reform Litigation Act.

The three-judge court here issued an order after finding that the unconstitutional conditions in the prison were the result primarily of overcrowding. Justice Kennedy, in his opinion, walked through the analysis that the three-judge court applied to see if it followed the requirements of that federal law.

And he found that the court, the lower court, had carefully documented and persuasively documented that overcrowding was the primary cause of the unconstitutional conditions and that the only way to solve these — these problems was to reduce the prison population.

RAY SUAREZ: There were four dissenters. They were the conservative core of the court. What did they have to say in opposition to that ruling?

MARCIA COYLE: There were actually two separate dissents. Justice Scalia wrote one dissent that was joined by Justice Thomas.

And he said that this order by this lower court was perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in the nation’s history. He felt that this type of order allows judges to indulge policy preferences and that they exceeded their authority under the Constitution and under federal law.

Justice Alito also wrote a dissent that was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts. And he agreed that the lower court here exceeded its authority. He also said it based its order on outdated evidence of what the conditions were presently in the prisons, and also that it didn’t give adequate weight to public safety.

He ended his — his dissent by saying he feared that this order would lead to a grim roster of victims.

RAY SUAREZ: In other words, that, once they let these people out of California prisons, that they will go on to commit new crimes in the streets of the state.

MARCIA COYLE: That’s correct.

And Justice Kennedy refuted that. He said that the lower court here had taken testimony and had statistical evidence from expert witnesses that showed that prison reduction — the reduction of prison populations in at least a half-a-dozen other states had not put the public safety at risk.

And he felt that the lower court here did give adequate weight to public safety concerns.

RAY SUAREZ: Were the dissenters — well, at least have a bit of a point when they say that, through this ruling, the federal courts have a big say over what happens in state prisons? Doesn’t this ruling do that?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, Ray, to be honest, I think this court doesn’t want federal judges running prisons or any other kind of institution. And they have felt that way for many years.

But this was a case, an unusual case, where the complaint and the court proceedings had lasted for almost 20 years. And it was clear from the oral arguments in the case that a number of the justices felt very frustrated by the delays and the inability of California to follow the various court orders. There were at least 70 lower court orders here in the last 20 years to address the medical conditions in the prisons.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the original three-court — three-judge ruling or today’s opinion talk about a plan? Who do you release? When do you do it? How do you do it?

MARCIA COYLE: No. In fact, Justice Kennedy pointed out that the lower court here didn’t say to California, you must release 43,000 prisoners within two years. It said you must reduce the prison population. And it left to California to come up with a plan that would reduce that population.

Justice Kennedy said it could do such things as transfer prisoners within — between prisons. It could build new facilities. It didn’t have to release 43,000 prisoners.

RAY SUAREZ: Was it unusual to open a ruling of the United States Supreme Court and see photographs? This is one of a set of holding cages where they keep mentally ill prisoners.

MARCIA COYLE: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: How did they get in there? And were they a striking addition to the normal run of opinions?

MARCIA COYLE: It is very rare to see photographs. Generally, we see drawings or maps in cases, for example, involving the redistricting of congressional districts.

But the court has from the parties to the original cases received photographs. It has received videos. In fact, the court has now on its home page a special Web page in which it posts audio and video in certain cases where the court has really split over how to interpret the video or the audio.

RAY SUAREZ: There are overcrowded prisons in a lot of states. Some of them joined California in opposition to this suit. What does it mean for them?

MARCIA COYLE: Eighteen states actually joined California in this appeal. And their argument was primarily one of concern for public safety if prison populations had to be reduced through the release of prisoners.

And, also, their state attorneys general feared that they would face similar litigation. So, I suppose we will just have to wait and see what the long-term impact of this particular order might be.

RAY SUAREZ: But, as of now, they’re not necessarily ordered to reduce overcrowding in their own prisons?

MARCIA COYLE: No. No, they’re not. And I’m not even sure they’re the subject of the same type of litigation. But, clearly, they fear that.

And California, by the way, has begun to take steps to reduce its prison population. Gov. Brown and the state legislature have approved legislation to transfer roughly 32,000 prisoners to county jurisdiction. The California legislature has not fully funded that plan.

RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal thanks for being with us.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Ray.