Supreme Court Agrees: California’s Prisons are Overcrowded
The United States Supreme Court today affirmed an injunction by a three-judge panel requiring California to release prisoners so that within two years the state’s prisons are at no more than 137.5% of their designed occupancy limits. (Read the high court’s opinion in Brown v. Plata here.)
The decision is very interesting for a number of reasons. First, a five justice majority is agreeing with a lower court panel when it says that the conditions in California’s prisons are unconstitutional.
“For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result.”
The potential result in this case–which by the way is not likely to happen, in my opinion– is the release of 37,000 prisoners over the next two years.
This is the second really interesting point: Justice Kennedy, the swing vote on this highly divided court, is the author of the opinion and he appears to leave plenty of wiggle room for the state to come back later and ask for more time or a modification to the lower court’s injunction.
The conservative’s are aploplectic with Justice Scalia reading the summary of his dissent from the bench this morning and beginning with:
“Today the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history: an order requiring California to release the staggering number of 46,000 convicted criminals.”
Of course Scalia is playing “Chicken Little” and claiming that the sky is falling in. The truth is that Kennedy’s opinion is pretty measured and gives the state plenty of outs–basically directing the lower court to consider modification if necessary. In fact, I would liken the ruling to Brown v. Board of Education, especially with Brown‘s direction that desegregation should occur “with all deliberate speed“–a delightfully ambiguous phrase that appears just elastic enough to satisfy almost everybody.