By Phillip Smith
A closely divided US Supreme Court Monday upheld a court order requiring California to cut its prison population by tens of thousands of inmates because the state has proven unwilling or unable to provide adequate health care in its overcrowded prisons. The decision came in Plata v. Brown, a case originally filed in 2001.
In the 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, saying the reduction in the number of prisoners was "required by the Constitution" to correct long-standing abuses of prisoners' rights. "The violations persisted for years. They remain uncorrected," he wrote.
He was joined by the high court's four Democratic appointees. The four Republican appointees all opposed the majority.
In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the court order is "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history." It would require the release of "the staggering number of 46,000 felons," Scalia complained.
The state of California could make substantial progress toward that goal simply by releasing the more than 28,000 persons imprisoned for violating the drug laws, including 10,000 doing time for simple drug possession and more than 1,500 doing time for marijuana offenses. Those year's end 2009 figures are the most recent available from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The court order is the culmination of more than a decade of litigation by prisoners' advocates, who successfully charged that mental and physical health in the state prison system was inadequate. In 2009, there was nearly a prisoner death a week that could have been prevented or delayed with better care.
The case revolves around inadequate mental and physical health care in a state prison system that in 2009 averaged nearly a death a week that might have been prevented or delayed with better medical care.
The state's 33 adult prisons were designed to hold 80,000 inmates, but held more than 142,000 at latest count. The court order should bring that number down to slightly more than 100,000 within two years, although the figure could stay higher if Gov. Jerry Brown (D) moves ahead with plans to build more prison cells.
“The U.S. Supreme Court was right to uphold the order to reduce California’s prison population. Tough on crime policies have crowded prisons so severely with people convicted of nonviolent offenses, including drug possession, that they are not only unsafe and overly costly, but also a net negative for public safety,” said Theshia Naidoo, staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. "To end prison overcrowding, California must reserve prison for serious offenses and that requires sentencing reform. Even minor changes to sentencing laws could reap major rewards. By reducing the penalty for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, for example, the state would save $450 million a year and reduce the prison population by over 9,000. We urge California to take the logical step of ending incarceration as a response to drug possession, while expanding opportunities for drug treatment in the community,” continued Naidoo.
“This landmark decision opens an important new chapter in California's long struggle over whether to expand or contract our bloated prison system,” says Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a broad statewide coalition working to reduce the number of people in California’s prison system. “This is an important moment for California to push forward much needed parole and sentencing reforms to reduce California’s prison population, including for example amending or repealing three strikes, releasing terminally ill and permanently medically incapacitated prisoners, eliminating return to custody as a sanction for administrative and technical parole violations, reforming drug sentencing laws, and many other reforms that have been proven to reduce incarceration rates and corrections costs while improving public safety,” continued Harris.
Gov. Brown has also talked about a "realignment" of the criminal justice system that would shift control of non-violent, low-level offenders from the state prison system to county and municipal lock-ups. That's not a real solution, said Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag, which charts the dramatic rise of the carceral state in California. State spending on prisons as risen from 2% of the budget in 1980 to 10% now.
"County jail expansion does not solve the underlying problems," said Gilmore. "We know that public safety is a direct outcome of public education, affordable housing, and living-wage jobs. These are goals we can achieve now if we take this opportunity to shrink prisons and jails. Building bigger jails to ease prison numbers is the same as rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic: wasting the same dollars in different jurisdictions. The US Supreme Court decision is a long-awaited cue for California's elected officials to stop messing around with superficial changes and start saving lives with real social investment, especially in communities where it makes the biggest difference."