The Supreme Court today issued what amounts to an injunction against the State of California and its prisons, ordering the state to release 30,000 prisoners from the overcrowded system. The 5-4 majority opinion in the case of Brown v. Plata, No. 09-1233 affirms an earlier order by a three-judge special federal court, made in 2009, requiring the state to reduce its prison population to 110,000, which would be 137% capacity. The current prisoner population is 140,000, down about 20,000 in the last two years. (We're also hearing that the number of prisoners has gone down only 9,000 since the cap was first ordered, and 37,000 is the magic number now. In any event, a lot of prisoners!)
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, in which he was joined by the liberal block. He concludes that the overcrowded system violates the Eighth Amendment on cruel and unusual punishment, and that the system has failed to adequately address the needs of prisoners with serious medical and mental problems. The lower court's opinion stated that "an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies," and emphasizes that the suicide rate of prisoners is CA is 80 percent higher than anywhere else.
How to implement this decision remains up to the lower court, and Kennedy says that early release of prisoners before their sentences are up may not be necessary other solutions could include new construction, out-of-state transfers, and using county facilities. But Republican state senators here in California are already scrambling to get in front of some cameras and warn of the dire consequences that this ruling could have.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a scathing dissent which he delivered orally (a rarity) today, pointing out that the prisoners receiving inadequate care, like those with mental illnesses, won't necessarily be the ones getting released, "and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym." He then made a remark about all the "happy-go-lucky felons" about to flood the streets of California. We're pretty sure someone must have laughed nervously, but it wasn't Kennedy.