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Supreme Court Examines Overcrowding in California Prisons

November 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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California's prisons house 144,000 inmates -- a significantly higher number than the facilities are designed to hold. In 2009, a judge ordered that the number be reduced to 111,000, still 30,000 more than intended. Gwen Ifill gets details from Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: The Supreme Court hears arguments in a case involving overcrowded prisons in California.

Gwen Ifill has the story.

GWEN IFILL: Should California be required to move thousands of inmates out of the state’s prisons to relieve drastic overcrowding? That was the question before the Supreme Court today.

Here are the underlying facts. California prisons currently house 144,000 inmates. In 2009, a three-judge panel ordered the state to reduce that number to 110,000 within two years. Yet, even if that goal is met, the system would still hold 30,000 more inmates than it is designed to.

Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal” was at the court today for the arguments in this case. And she joins us now.

So, I guess two questions right off the bat: How did the prisons get so crowded and how did this get to the court, Marcia?

MARCIA COYLE, “The National Law Journal”: Well, I’m sure there are many factors as to why the prisons are so crowded, but I think a major factor, all would agree, is that the United States and California, as part of that, have — has very tough sentencing laws, tougher sentencing laws in the last two decades than probably ever before.

I think California may still be what we call a “three strikes, you’re out” state. This case that came to the court today that was heard today really stems from two lawsuits, one filed back in 1990 on behalf of mentally ill inmates. The — the suit charged that California was violating the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, because there was basically no treatment for mentally ill inmates.

The second lawsuit, filed in 2001, was over substandard medical care in general for prison inmates in California.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about cruel and unusual, were there examples that were brought before the court about the outcome of this overcrowding?

MARCIA COYLE: Yes. There were many examples. And, by the way, California concedes that it — the conditions within the prisons are not good.

During the arguments, Justice Breyer said he had looked at pictures that were submitted to the court. And he called the pictures horrible, horrible. Justice Sotomayor, in posing questions to California’s attorney, Carter Phillips, said, when are you going to get around to this, if not within the two years ordered? When are you going to get around to people sitting in their feces in a dazed state?

So, it was very clear, Gwen, that the court was very much aware of the conditions in the prisons.

GWEN IFILL: So, what are California’s options for reducing that kind of overcrowding?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, California, according to its lawyer, Carter Phillips, has made progress, he argued, in the last three to four years.

A receiver was appointed by the courts to oversee this. And he said — Mr. Phillips said that California has begun new construction of facilities, and it is looking at ways of, not necessarily opening the door, prison doors, but using — for example, it has used good-time credits, expanding the use of good-time credits in order to release prisons — prisoners a little earlier.

GWEN IFILL: But isn’t that the fear and the argument, in part, that, in order to reduce the population, that many people, especially, you’re essentially opening doors?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the lawyer for the inmates, Mr. Specter, Donald Specter, he said, really, this isn’t what you think immediately of as a prison release order, that the doors are going to open. It will happen gradually over a period of years. And, as Mr. Phillips indicated, there are safe ways to do this.

But I saw two different trains of thought emerging during the arguments. Justices, like Justice Sotomayor, Justice Ginsburg, even Justice Kennedy to a certain extent, expressed a certain amount of impatience. It’s been 20 years in the one case, Justice Ginsburg said. There were 70 court orders in the one case, that a number of which had been violated.

She said, how long must a court wait for the state to move forward? Another 20 years?

GWEN IFILL: Where was Justice Alito in all that?

MARCIA COYLE: Justice Alito represented the other side. He pressed the inmates’ lawyer, Mr. Specter, about the number that the court had ordered here, in terms of the number of inmates to be released.

He said: If I were a citizen of California, I would be concerned.

And he said that, based on experience in Philadelphia and a brief that had been filed by about 19 other states, he believed that there would be an increase in crime. And he told this lawyer, experts can argue whatever they want. He said: I think that there’s going to be an increase in crime if this goes through.

Mr. Specter, though, said that statistics in expert testimony show that hasn’t happened in other states that have had to reduce prison populations.

GWEN IFILL: But you mentioned Justice Kennedy. Does he end up kind of in the middle again on this?

(LAUGHTER)

MARCIA COYLE: I think he does, because, while he also expressed concern when he was talking with the state’s attorney, Mr. Phillips, you know, he said, at some point, a court has to say enough. You have to do something. This is a violation of the Constitution.

On the other hand, he said to the inmates’ lawyer: I’m concerned about the number here. Is this narrowly tailored, as required by federal law, to achieve the goal?

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, are there other states watching this as well?

MARCIA COYLE: I think all states will be watching this. I believe this is the first case to get to the Supreme Court under the Prison Litigation Reform Act to look into the authority of a federal court to order this kind of population reduction.

GWEN IFILL: Marcia Coyle, as always, thank you so much.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Gwen.