Daily Video

May 27, 2011

California Prisons Ruled Too Crowded

In a divided 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population by more than 33,000 inmates, even if it means allowing prisoners to go free.

The conclusion upheld a lower court decision stating that prison overcrowding has led to poor living and health conditions, which constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

Justice Anthony Kennedy believed the lower court’s analysis met federal law requirements. In his written opinion, he included photographs of crammed sleeping quarters in what he referred to as violent, unsanitary and chaotic conditions.

But not everyone agreed with Kennedy’s opinion.

In opposing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the high court had affirmed “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.”

Justice Samuel Alito, who also opposed the ruling, said that released prisoners would commit new crimes and he “feared that this order would lead to a grim roster of victims.”

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

Kennedy also pointed out that the lower court didn’t say 43,000 prisoners must be released within two years. It said the prison population must be reduced, and it is now up to California to come up with a plan. Kennedy said California could transfer prisoners between prisons or build new facilities.

Quotes

“Statistical evidence from expert witnesses … 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.” -Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“This order by this lower court was perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in the nation’s history.” -Justice Antonin Scalia.

Warm Up Questions

1. What is the U.S. Supreme Court? What role does it play in the government?

2. What do Judges on the Supreme Court do?

3. What is the Eight Amendment of the Constitution?

Discussion Questions

1. What do you think of the Supreme Court ruling for California to reduce its prison population by more than 33,000 inmates?

2. Do you agree with Justice Samuel Alito’s fears about freed prisoners committing new crimes? Why or Why not?

3. Justice Anthony Kennedy points out that transferring prisoners to new facilities or building new prisoners might be a solution to the problem. Do you agree? Why or why not?

4. What is another solution for overcrowding in prisons?

Additional Resources

Video Transcript

Supreme Court Examines Overcrowding in California Prisons

California Budget Woes Squeeze Overcrowded Prisons

PAYING FOR CRIME

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