Supreme Court tells California to cut prison inmates by 30,000
California prison officials must remove tens of thousands of inmates from their prison rolls in the next two years, the Supreme Court ruled, saying persistent, severe overcrowding violates the constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Tribune Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — California prison officials must remove tens of thousands of inmates from their prison rolls in the next two years, the Supreme Court ruled, saying persistent, severe overcrowding has resulted in "needless suffering and death" and violates the constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The ruling, one of the largest prison-release orders in the nation's history, sharply split the court, with vivid descriptions of indecent care from the majority and outraged warnings of a "grim roster of victims" from some in the minority. It will force the state to reduce the number of inmates by more than 30,000, either by releasing some who are now held or by sending fewer local convicts to state prisons.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Sacramento, Calif., native, spoke from the bench about suicidal prisoners being held in "telephone-booth sized cages without toilets" and others sick with cancer or severe abdominal pain who died before they were seen by a doctor. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, and as many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet, he said.
Kennedy, whose opinion was joined by his four liberal colleagues, said the state's prisons were built to hold 80,000 inmates but were crowded with as many as 156,000 a few years ago.
He cited a former Texas prison director who toured California prisons and described the conditions as "appalling," "inhumane" and unlike any he had seen "in more than 35 years of prison work."
The court's four conservatives accused their colleagues of "gambling with the safety of the people of California," in the words of Justice Samuel Alito. "I fear that today's decision will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see," he said.
Justice Antonin Scalia, delivering his own dissent in the courtroom, said the majority had affirmed "what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history." He added, "terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order." Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas also dissented.
But California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a muted statement calling for enactment of measures to enable the reductions and vowing that "I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety."
California prison officials said they hoped to avoid releasing many prisoners. Instead, they said they planned to "divert" low-level offenders to local facilities. "Our goal is not to release inmates at all," said Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, though he conceded a release of some prisoners is still likely.
The ruling is sure to revive the debate over whether it is good policy to send more prisoners to long terms behind bars. California led the way with the "three strikes and you're out" law to keep repeat offenders in state custody.
Kennedy noted that the state sends an usually large percentage of paroled inmates back to prison for minor, technical violations. Testimony in the lower courts suggested the prisons may become breeding grounds for more crime.
But Alito said sending more inmates to prison has led to lower crime rates in California and elsewhere. From 1992 to 2009, the violent-crime rate dropped by 58 percent in California, he said. He predicted that releasing inmates early will likely lead to an increase in crime. Nationwide, the violent-crime rate fell by 43 percent during the same period.
Monday's ruling arose from a pair of prison class-action lawsuits, one going back 20 years, which accused the state of failing to provide decent care for prisoners who were mentally ill or in need of medical care.
Since the earlier court order, the state has transferred about 9,000 state inmates to county jails. According to recent figures, the total prison population is about 33,000 more than the limit of 110,000 set by the three-judge panel.
Nearly 200 inmates at California's San Quentin State Prison rioted in the dining hall Sunday night, leaving at least four men wounded and hospitalized. San Quentin, in Marin County north of San Francisco, is the state's oldest prison and houses nearly 5,000 men, including those on death row. The riot came just two days after another riot at California State Prison, Sacramento, left six inmates injured, including two seriously, prison officials said.
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