With starkly different visions of what the decision would bring about, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled on Monday that California may have to start turning loose many state prison inmates to relieve serious overcrowding that leads to health woes, deaths from neglect, suicides, and violent uprisings.  As the five-Justice majority saw it, the release order is flexible, and may not actually mean a flood of releases.  But as the four dissenters complained, it would lead to a “staggering number” of releases of hardened criminals in a “gamble” with the safety of all Californians.

Which vision proves to be true over the next two years, and beyond, depends upon what state officials do from here on: how they select the inmates to let go, what arrangements they can make to send prisoners to other states or to county jails, how they can reduce the influx of new prisoners into California’s 33 prisons, whether they can get money from the legislature for hiring more doctors and staff, and whether new construction can be carried out.  The majority stressed how much flexibility it was leaving with the state’s officials, but the dissenters saw only chaos in trying to implement a “deliberately ambiguous set of suggestions” on how the release order could be pared down.

What is directly at issue in the decision, and is to be implemented beginning with this decision’s announcement, is a three-judge District Court’s January 2010 order requiring the state to reduce prison population statewide to 167 percent of capacity within six months, to 155 percent within 12 months, to 147 percent within 18 months, and to 137.5 percent within two years.   The prison population state wide is now about 143,400 inmates.   The order has been on hold until the Supreme Court ruled.

At the time the District Court issued its order, this release requirement meant that, at the greatest level, somewhere around 46,000 inmates would have to go free to meet the two-year goal.  That figure has dropped somewhat, and current estimates are that perhaps 32,000 will have to be released, unless state officials come up with alternatives to outright release.

Although Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the main opinion’s author, anticipated that a massive release of those dimensions could ultimately be avoided, he did concede that some releases could not be avoided.  “Absent a reduction in overcrowding, any remedy might prove unattainable and would at the very least require vast expenditures of resources by the state,” Kennedy wrote.  And there is nothing in the history of the two prisoner lawsuits decided Monday, Kennedy said, to suggest that the state will come up with the money needed to finance alternatives to reduced populations.  (The two cases were decided under the combined title of Brown v. Plata, et al. (docket 19-1233.)

The decision upheld what clearly is the most sweeping inmate release order in the 15-year history of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a federal law that Congress passed to set new standards to govern when federal courts order prisoners be set free.  The Act limits such orders to those that are “truly necessary” to avoid a violation of inmates’ rights, specifies that they can only be issued as a last resort, requires that prior court orders to protect inmates’ rights have been tried and failed, mandates that state officials be given time to pursue alternatives, and allows an actual release order only if overcrowding is the primary cause of the violation.  (Before that law was enacted, federal courts for years had used their general powers to remedy wrongs, and did order actual releases.)

In Monday’s ruling, the majority found that the California order had satisfied all of the conditions of the federal law, went no further than necessary, and held the promise, at least, of beginning to remedy the rampant neglect in the state’s facilities of the medical care and mental health care of inmates.  Much of Kennedy’s opinion was devoted to a detailed recounting of the woes that have prevailed without notable improvement in decades, and the futile efforts of two federal judges to make much headway with scores of orders to improve conditions.

One judge had been working on the case involving mental health care deficiencies for 16 years, and another judge has been handling the medical care litigation for nine years, before the case ultimately was transferred to a three-judge District Court to consider a release order under the 1996 federal law.

Although Justice Kennedy emphasized that nothing the Court said Monday was designed to undercut the release order, the concluding part of his opinion was essentially a road map for state officials to follow if they wanted to get that order modified from here on.  The Court suggested that officials could come in and ask that the two-year goal be lengthened, perhaps to five years, and could seek other modifications to the specifics of the order.  It essentially ordered the District Court to consider with care any such requests, if the state can come up with justifications for its requests.

Noting that the state had already “made significant progress,” the main opinion said that “as the state makes further progress, the three-judge court should evaluate whether its order remains appropriate.  If significant progress is made toward remedying the underlying constitutional violations, that progress may demonstrate that further population reductions are not necessary or are less urgent than previously believed.”

The constitutional premise of the decision upholding the release order was that the overcrowding in the state’s nearly three dozen prisons had resulted in clear violations of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  The state’s desire to avoid a release order, Kennedy wrote, “creates a certain and unacceptable risk of continuing violations of the rights of sick and mentally ill prisoners, with the result that many more will die or needlessly suffer.  The Constitution does not permit this wrong.”

The Kennedy opinion was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.     Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a strongly-worded dissent, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.  Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., wrote a separate dissent, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.

Scalia was scathing in his criticism of the release order, of the Kennedy opinion, and especially of the concluding “coda” (as Scalia called it) suggesting that state officials were free to seek relaxation or change in the release order.   He opened his opinion with the sweeping statement that “today the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history.”   As to the suggestions for possible change, Scalia argued that that was little more than “a ceremonial washing of the hands,” so that “if the terrible things sure to happen” do occur, the Court won’t be responsible.

Alito’s separate opinion concluded with this direct comment: “I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims.  I hope that I am wrong.  In a few years, we will see.”

Posted in Brown v. Plata, Featured, Merits Cases

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Partial OK for prisoner release, SCOTUSblog (May. 23, 2011, 2:54 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2011/05/partial-ok-for-prisoner-release/