WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Supreme Court has ordered California to release tens of thousands of prisoners to relieve overcrowding.
The 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy affirms a 2009 ruling by a three-judge panel appointed to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons and orders California to release 37,000 to 46,000 inmates to bring the prison population back to capacity.
“After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effective absent a reduction in the prison system population,” Kennedy wrote in an opinion along with other Court members.
Critics of California’s prison system say that chronic overcrowding has precluded inmates from receiving timely medical care. Kennedy cites examples of prisoners with mental or physical ailments having to waiting months for insufficient care, with some dying while seeking care that was delayed due to a backlog of patients.
“If a prison deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation,” Kennedy wrote.
The ruling allows the state some flexibility in how it chooses to reduce its inmate population, suggesting that the three-judge panel could extend a two-year compliance order if it decided the state was making headway in reducing its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity.
“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,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, in a dissenting opinion.
Scalia expressed concern that the ruling enables judges to override lawmakers on setting policy and that the decision encompasses inmates not affected by overcrowding.
“It is also worth noting the peculiarity that the vast majority of inmates most generously rewarded by the release order – the 46,000 whose incarceration will be ended – do not form part of any aggrieved class even under the Court’s expansive notion of constitutional violation,” Scalia wrote. “Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”
Chief Justice John Roberts joined a separate dissent written by Justice Samuel Alito that questioned whether it is acceptable to allow federal judges to run state prison systems.