California Order to Release Inmates Questioned by U.S. Justices at Hearing

U.S. Supreme Court justices questioned whether a lower court went too far when it ordered California to reduce its prison population by 46,000 within two years to ease overcrowding.

Hearing arguments today in Washington, the justices sought to balance the rights of the inmates, who say they lack access to adequate medical and mental health care, with the state’s interest in managing its own penal system and with the safety needs of its citizens. The release order is the largest of its kind in U.S. history.

The 80-minute hearing revealed a court likely to be divided on the order, issued by a three-judge federal court after more than two decades of litigation. The split may leave the outcome in the hands of Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose questioning suggested that he would require changes in the order without overturning it altogether.

“At some point the court has to say, ‘You have been given enough time,’” Kennedy said. “Overcrowding is the principal cause, as experts have testified, and now it’s time for a remedy.”

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is appealing the order, arguing that it conflicts with a federal law aimed at reducing prison litigation. The lawyer representing the state, Carter Phillips, told the justices that the lower court didn’t adequately consider the public safety impact of releasing so many prisoners.

“I guarantee you that there is going to be more crime and people are going to die on the streets of California,” he said.

$19 Billion Deficit

California, the nation’s most populous state, doesn’t contest that its prisoners have been held in unconstitutional conditions. Its appeal focuses solely on the remedy ordered by the lower court and argues that the state should have been given more time to address the problems. The state is facing a $19 billion budget deficit during its next fiscal year.

Two groups of prisoners, along with the union that represents the state’s prison employees, are pressing the case against California.

The three-judge panel found that some prisons had populations approaching 300 percent of their intended capacity, leading to increased violence and disease. The panel ordered the state to find a way to cut its inmate population to 137.5 percent of design capacity.

Freeing Prisoners

Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether the best way to address the problems was to set prisoners free.

“Why order the release of all those people, rather than ordering the provision of the construction of facilities for medical care, facilities to treat mental illness, hiring of staff treat mental illness?” Alito asked.

A lawyer representing some of the inmates said a trial judge had issued 70 orders over a 15-year period aimed directly at the health-care problems. Only when those efforts proved ineffective did the three-judge panel issue the release order, he said.

“Unless you reduce the crowding, nothing else is going to work,” said the lawyer for the inmates, Donald Specter. “When you reduce overcrowding, the prison will be able to operate and will be able to provide those services that it can’t provide now.”

A Long Wait

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg signaled that she would back Specter’s argument. “How much longer do we have to wait? Another 20 years?” she asked.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he had looked at pictures of the prison facilities online and found them to be “pretty horrendous.” Justice Elena Kagan said the state was asking the court to second-guess lower court judges on “the facts that they’ve been dealing with for 20 years.”

Other justices offered more support for the state. Chief Justice John Roberts said he questioned whether the three-judge panel had considered the effect on public safety, as is required under the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act.

“Isn’t that a basis for overturning the remedy that’s imposed here?” Roberts asked.

Kennedy wondered aloud whether the release order went too far. He questioned the panel’s requirement that the state cut its inmate population to 137.5 percent of design capacity, saying an order requiring a reduction to 145 percent might have been sufficient.

Under the 1996 law, “if there is going to be a release order, it must be releasing the minimum amount,” Kennedy said.

The case, which the court will resolve by July, is Schwarzenegger v. Plata, 09-1233.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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