California Rejected by High Court on Inmate-Release Order

The U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court order that compels California to reduce its prison population by almost 10,000 inmates by year-end.

The justices yesterday rejected 6-3 California’s bid to delay the order, which the state said will force the early release of “violent and serious offenders.” Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito voted to grant a delay.

A three-judge federal panel in June required the state to take new steps, potentially including expansion of good-behavior credits, to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity by Dec. 31.

The Supreme Court in 2011 upheld an earlier order requiring the state to cut the number of inmates by tens of thousands. The high court said that order, the largest of its kind in U.S. history, was an appropriate step to remedy the constitutionally inadequate level of health care provided to prisoners.

“While California’s stay request was denied today, the state will pursue its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court so that the merits of the case can be considered without delay,” California Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeff Beard said yesterday in a statement. The effort will focus on the June implementation order in light of improved prison conditions.

Alternative Steps

The three-judge panel left open the possibility that the state could meet the required level by reassigning prisoners to leased detention space or letting inmates finish their terms in county jails. California says those steps won’t be sufficient to meet the target.

California’s prisons operated at 200 percent of design capacity for more than a decade. In the 2011 ruling, the high court said that as many as 54 prisoners had to share a single toilet and that suicidal inmates had been held in cages the size of a telephone booth because of a shortage of treatment beds.

In the latest court appearance, California’s lawyers argued that the appellate panel should have considered changes in the penal system during the interim.

The prisoners suing the state argued that officials “adopted a stance of outright defiance” after the court’s 2011 ruling.

California has cut its prison population by 37,000 inmates since 2008 and now holds 119,000.

The case is Brown v. Plata, 13A57.

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