02 June 2011
In Brown v. Plata, a 5-4 Court majority ruled that overcrowding in California prisons had led to inadequate health-care services, resulted in extreme suffering and even death, and therefore violated the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners, upholding a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling revealed a sharp divide on the court between Justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.
Justice Kennedy, a Sacramento native, wrote for the majority and described dismal conditions where prisoners are denied minimal care and suicidal inmates are held in "telephone-booth sized" cages for 24 hours. In one case investigators found a seriously ill inmate standing "nearly catatonic" in a pool of his own urine.
The mentally and physically ill were not receiving care, Kennedy wrote, saying the sick with cancer or severe abdominal pain 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. In other cases food was served in inmate's cells where the only table was their toilet.
A lower court found that a prisoner in the California system died for lack of medical care every six or seven days.
Kennedy, whose opinion was joined by his four liberal colleagues, said the state's prison population was at 156,000 a few years ago. As of May 11, inmates numbered roughly 143,000 in a 33 adult prison-system designed to hold 80,000.
"A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society."
Scalia read a blistering dissent from the bench in which he called the ruling "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history" and said it would require the release of a "staggering number" of convicted felons.
Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia's opinion, while Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate dissent for himself and Chief Justice John Roberts.
The ruling also raised concerns among California lawmakers and attorneys general from 18 states that 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 decision, however, doesn't mean the prison gates will swing open in an uncontrolled release. "Our goal is to not release inmates at all," said Matthew Cate, the state corrections secretary.
Shorter term inmates will leave prison before the U.S. Supreme Court's deadline expires, and newly sentenced lower-level offenders would go to local jails under the plan.
Inland Officials Brace for Shift to Counties
"These offenders will be returning to our communities perhaps sooner than we'd planned," said Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione, president of the California State Association of Counties, who urged state lawmakers to make sure counties have the money to provide public safety and rehabilitation services.
"If we don't do it smart, we could have all those people come back for additional crimes. We may ultimately have to build more prisons anyway, but I don't think we want to get cornered into that box," said Chuck Alexander, executive vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Michael Ramos, San Bernardino County district attorney, called the court decision "bad news," echoing the concern of the ruling's dissenting justices over a potential impact to public safety.
With 7.2 percent of state prisoners coming from San Bernardino County, Ramos said as many as 2,300 inmates could be released back to county streets during the next two years.
"We have been anticipating how we're going to handle this problem with (San Bernardino County) Sheriff (Rod) Hoops," Ramos said.
Ramos said construction of a new jail facility being built in Adelanto puts the county "a little ahead of the game, but it's not done yet. We're going to figure out what the timeline is and when the inmates are going to be released."
Sgt. Dave Phelps, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, said Hoops doesn't want the public to be alarmed, with the decision being implemented gradually over two years.
"The state is not going to ship busloads of inmates to the county ...," Phelps said. "He said the Adelanto facility will add over 1,300 beds to the jail population." Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach said he does not anticipate a mass release of prisoners. He said in two weeks the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will submit a compliance plan to the three-judge panel that originally ordered the reduction.
Gov. Jerry Brown sought and signed a bill this year 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.
While there is plenty of nail biting and confusion over how to comply with the ruling, most would agree the stunning growth in the prison population in the nation's most populous state can be attributed in part to years of politically motivated resistance to reform and get-tough sentencing laws, including a three-strike law that sends repeat offenders to prison for life.