Inmates sit for dinner at the California State Prison in Lancaster. A federal overseer of the state’s prison system has suggested freeing the sickest inmates as a way to cut costs.
The Supreme Court ordered California on Monday to release tens of thousands of its prisoners to relieve overcrowding, saying that “needless suffering and death” had resulted from putting too many inmates into facilities that cannot hold them in decent conditions.
It is one of the largest prison release orders in the nation’s history, and it sharply split the high court.
Justices upheld an order from a three-judge panel in California that called for releasing 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners. Since then, the state has transferred about 9,000 state inmates to county jails. As a result, the total prison population is now about 32,000 more than the capacity limit set by the panel.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said California’s prisons had “fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements” because of overcrowding. As many as 200 prisoners may live in gymnasium, he said, and as many as 54 prisoners share a single toilet.
Kennedy insisted that the state had no choice but to release more prisoners. The justices, however, agreed that California officials should be given more time to make the needed reductions.
In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the ruling “staggering” and “absurd.”
He said the high court had repeatedly overruled the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for ordering the release of individual prisoners. Now, he said, the majority were ordering the release of “46,000 happy-go-lucky felons.” He added that “terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order.” Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with him.
In a separate dissent, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the ruling conflicted with a federal law intended to limit the power of federal judges to order a release of prisoners.
State officials and lawyers for inmates differ over just how many prisoners will have to be released. In recent figures, the state said it had about 142,000 inmates behind bars, and the judges calculated the prison population would need to be reduced to about 110,000 to comply with constitutional standards.
Kennedy said the judges in California overseeing the prison-release order should “accord the state considerable latitude to find mechanisms and make plans” that are “consistent with the public safety.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said the court had “done the right thing” by addressing the “egregious and extreme overcrowding in California’s prisons.”
David Fathi, director of the ACLU national prison project, said “reducing the number of people in prison not only would save the state taxpayers half a billion annually, it would lead to the implementation of truly rehabilitative programs that lower recidivism rates and create safer communities.”
Meanwhile, the court took no action on another California case in which a conservative group is challenging the state’s policy of granting in-state tuition at its colleges and universities to students who are illegal immigrants and have graduated from its high schools.
The justices said they would consider the appeal in a later private conference.