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Supreme Court backs cuts in Calif. prison population

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that California must drastically reduce its prison population to relieve severe overcrowding that has exposed inmates to increased violence, disease and death.

The decision, however, doesn’t mean the prison gates will swing open in an uncontrolled release.

The high court’s 5-4 decision calls on the state to cut the population to no more than 110,000 inmates. To get there, state officials have two years to either transfer some 33,000 inmates to other jails or release them.

California has already been preparing for the ruling, driven as much by persistent multibillion dollar budget deficits as by fears for the well-being of prison inmates and employees. The state has sent inmates to other states. It plans to transfer jurisdiction over others to counties, though the state doesn’t have the money to do it.

“They’ve made a lot of plans already,” said Michael Bien, one of the attorneys who sought the ruling on behalf of mentally and physically ill inmates who suffered in severely crowded conditions. “We’re sure it can be done safely and appropriately.

“What’s more, it will save a lot of money,” he said.

The ruling raised concerns among California lawmakers and attorneys general from 18 other states who argued that a decision ordering the reduction of California’s inmate population infringes on states’ rights and could leave their prisons open to similar lawsuits.

It’s “a historic attack on the constitutional rights of states and the liberty of all Californians,” said former state Sen. George Runner, who had intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of legislative Republicans. It will result in “flooding our neighborhoods with criminals.”

The ruling gives California two weeks to submit a population reduction plan and two years to comply.

However, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a California native who wrote the majority opinion, said the state could ask a federal court for more time to reach the 110,000-inmate target, even as he chastised California for allowing unconstitutional conditions to persist for years.

“Our goal is to not release inmates at all,” said Matthew Cate, the state corrections secretary. Shorter term inmates will leave prison before the Supreme Court’s deadline expires, and newly sentenced lower-level offenders would go to local jails under the plan.

Concerns over prison crowding and security grew over the weekend with a pair of riots that injured inmates, but no guards.

A fight by nearly 200 inmates in a San Quentin State Prison dining hall Sunday left four men with stab or slash wounds. On Friday, six inmates were sent to hospitals, two of them with serious injuries, after about 150 inmates rioted at California State Prison, Sacramento.

A special panel of three judges based in different parts of California decided in 2009 to order the prison population reduction. Monday’s order puts them in charge of how the state complies.

Joined by the court’s four Democratic appointees, Kennedy wrote that the crowding reduction is “required by the Constitution” to correct violations of inmates’ rights that have persisted for years despite lower court rulings requiring improvements.

The growth in the prison population in the nation’s most populous state can be attributed in part to years of get-tough sentencing laws, including a three-strikes law that sends repeat offenders to prison for life. As of May 11, there were roughly 143,000 inmates in a 33 adult prison-system designed to hold 80,000.

At the peak of overcrowding in 2006, nearly 20,000 inmates were living in makeshift housing in gymnasiums and other common areas, often sleeping in bunks stacked three high. Prison doctors conducted examinations in shower stalls or in makeshift offices without running water, often in full view of other inmates.

One of the federal judges involved in the lower court ruling once blamed the prison system’s poor medical care for causing the death of about one inmate every week due to neglect or medical malpractice.

The same judge in 2006 seized control of the prison health care system, putting it under the management of a federal receiver. A second judge in the case has blamed crowding for contributing to poor care for mentally ill inmates, leading some to kill themselves.

At the time, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a public safety emergency because of the crowding. He then began shipping inmates to private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. More than 10,000 California inmates are now housed in private prisons out of state.

The ruling comes amid efforts in many states, accelerated by budget gaps, to send fewer people to prison in the first place. Proposals vary by state, but include ways to reduce sentences for lower-level offenders, direct some offenders to alternative sentencing programs and give judges more discretion in sentencing.

“There’s a growing consensus that there are better ways to run criminal justice systems,” said Michael Mushlin, an expert on prisoners’ rights at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y.

In recent years, California legislators and Schwarzenegger tried to find ways to reduce prison time for those less likely to commit new crimes. Schwarzenegger signed legislation that increased early release credits and made it more difficult to send ex-convicts back to prison for parole violations. He signed another law that rewards county probation departments for keeping criminals out of state prisons.

One result of those changes is that the state has been able to do away with nearly two-thirds of its makeshift beds, although more than 7,000 inmates remain in temporary housing.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who as attorney general fought the ruling, sought and signed a bill that would reduce the prison population by about 40,000 inmates by transferring jurisdiction for many low-level offenders to counties. The law is stalled until the lawmakers or voters authorize money to pay for the transfer. Much of the money is intended to help counties handle the responsibility of housing convicts.

“As we work to carry out the Court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety,” he said in a prepared statement.

Several organizations, from the state prison guards union to the California State Association of Counties, backed Brown’s realignment plan — and the elusive funding — as the most practical way to comply with the court’s mandate.

“If we don’t do it smart, we could have all those people come back for additional crimes,” said Chuck Alexander, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

Dissenters on the Supreme Court fear the worst, both in terms of public safety and what they described as a lower bar set for court intervention in how state’s run their prison systems.

Justice Samuel Alito, in a dissent along with Chief Justice John Roberts, said he feared that the decision, “like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see.” Justice Clarence Thomas joined in Justice Antonin Scalia’s separate dissent.

Aside from reducing the inmate population, the court said the state must continue to improve medical treatment in prison. Cate, the corrections secretary, and J. Clark Kelso, the federal receiver who now controls prison medical care, noted that construction of a new centralized medical facility south of the state capital is already under way.

The California dispute is the first high court case that reviewed a prisoner release order under a 1996 federal law that made it much harder for inmates to challenge prison conditions. The law was enacted after Republicans led by Newt Gingrich regained control of Congress and tried to rein in judicial interference in states’ affairs, said Frank Zimring, a University of California, Berkeley law professor.

“This is also sort of an object lesson in be careful what you wish for,” he said.


  1. I think that is a good thing, but Federal prisons along with State prisons are over crowded, I was wondering why all states don’t try to lower the inmate population, some of the inmate are in satalite camps which are’t that different from being on home monitoring, only thing is I think the home monitoring is alot more strict not sure. The debt that our goverment is in, it seem like a good thing to think about for all states an inmates that are at satelite camps and first time offenders. I have a son that is a first time offender in the federal system and the prisons don’t have AC and alot of them are really far from home which makes visitation hard, and the visitation rooms are generally packed and really un organized, there is nothing for children to do and some times you get told you have t shorten your visit because the officers there don’t want to deal with the children. There is more I could tell abut the conditions and the way inmates are treated which shouldn’t be allowed. But for now I hope someone who knows the right people to contact is will to help our loved ones come home sooner.

  2. We need comprehensive sentencing reform at the state and federal level. That’s the only way to deal with this problem in the long term.