Supreme Court Orders California To Reduce its Prison Population
Since 1990, California has faced numerous lawsuits related to prison medical care and overcrowding.
In 2009, a federal three-judge panel ruled that California's prisons were so overcrowded that they violated constitutional standards for medical and mental health care.
The panel noted that one inmate died every eight days from medical conditions that could have been avoided or delayed (California Healthline, 12/1/10).
Supreme Court Ruling
The Supreme Court justices upheld the federal panel's ruling, noting that the prison system houses almost twice as many inmates as it was designed to hold. According to the ruling, overcrowding has contributed to "grossly inadequate provision of medical and mental health care."
In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that "[n]eedless suffering and death have been the well-documented result" of prison overcrowding (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/24).
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the ruling is "the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history" (Savage/McGreevy, Los Angeles Times, 5/24).
State Plans for Compliance
The injunction allows the state two years to reduce its prison population. However, the court suggested that California officials seek an extension from the three-judge panel to provide the state with up to five years to comply with the order.
State officials hope the majority of the reductions can be achieved through legislation (AB 109) that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed last month. The new law would shift tens of thousands of nonviolent inmates to county jails (Sacramento Bee, 5/24).
However, the implementation of AB 109 depends on voter approval of a constitutional amendment that would fund the prisoner shift by raising taxes on income, sales and vehicles. Brown is expected to cite the Supreme Court order as he continues pushing for lawmakers and voters to support his plan to raise taxes (York, "PolitiCal," Los Angeles Times, 5/23).
Matthew Cate -- secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation -- said Brown's plan to transfer inmates "would solve quite a bit" of the overcrowding problem. He said, "Our goal is to not release inmates at all."
In response to the Supreme Court ruling, Brown said, "I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety" (Los Angeles Times, 5/24).
Editorials, Opinion Piece
Headlines and links to editorials and an opinion piece on the Supreme Court order are provided below.
- "State Must Decrease Prison Crowding" (Contra Costa Times, 5/23).
- "Time for California To Tackle Prison Overcrowding" (Los Angeles Times, 5/24).
- "California's Prison Crisis" (New York Times, 5/23).
- "So Many Prisoners, Not Enough Money" (Orange County Register, 5/23).
- "Prison Ruling Doesn't Need To Undercut Safety" (Sacramento Bee, 5/24).
- "California Prison System Reform is Long Overdue" (Hancock, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/24).
- "Verdict on Prison Crowding Puts Onus on Sacramento" (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/24).
- "The Supreme Court's Prison Break" (Wall Street Journal, 5/24).
Headlines and links to broadcast coverage on the prison ruling are provided below.
- "California Ordered To Reduce Prison Population" (Gonzales, "Morning Edition," NPR, 5/24).
- "Supreme Court Ruling Boosts Gov. Brown's 'Prison Realignment' Plan" (Musiker, "KQED News," KQED, 5/23).
- "Lawmakers Weigh In on Supreme Court Prison Decision" (Russ, "KXJZ News," Capital Public Radio, 5/23).
- "Supreme Court Rules California Must Alleviate Overcrowding in Prisons" (Ryssdal, "Marketplace," American Public Media, 5/23).
- "Supreme Court Tells California To Cut Prison Population" (Small/Sherman, "KPCC News," KPCC, 5/23).