Monday, May 23, 2011

Supreme Court Upholds California Prison Inmate Cap

The United States Supreme Court upheld a three-judge court's prison population cap, "gambling with the safety of the people of California." In Brown v. Plata (May 23, 2011), ---S.Ct. ---, the Court upheld a special three-judge court's order California reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity within two years. As a result, the State must reduce the prison population by approximately 37,000 inmates.

Justice Kennedy wrote for the five member majority, arguing the State failed to provide prisoners with basic sustenance, including medical care, violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  The Court affirmed the three-judge court's conclusion clear and convincing evidence showed only a population cap addressed the violations. Justices Scalia and Alito wrote separate dissents, arguing the three-judge court exceeded its authority under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 and gave too little weight to the risks to public safety.

Justice Scalia described the cap as “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.”  He questioned why releasing “fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym” would help “prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness.”  Scalia further criticized the three-judge court for "relying largely on their own beliefs about penology and recidivism" and characterizing their opinions as factual findings subject to deference on review.  In Scalia's view, the Court's decision permits "the policy preferences of three District Judges [to] govern the operation of California’s penal system."

Justice Alito echoed Scalia's concerns, noting the "Constitution does not give federal judges the authority to run state penal systems."  Alito cautioned releasing "the equivalent of three Army divisions" from California prisons may "lead to a grim roster of victims." He noted in an 18-month period following similar inmate release in the 1990s, "the Philadelphia police rearrested thousands [] for committing 9,732 new crimes [including] 79 murders, 90 rapes, 1,113 assaults, 959 robberies, 701 burglaries, and 2,748 thefts, not to mention thousands of drug offenses."