Did US Supreme Court Overreach With Cali. Prison Ruling?

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ordered Cali. to cut its prison population by 30,000, even if it means freeing inmates. In a 5-4 decision, the justices said overcrowding subjects prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment. Host Michel Martin explores what this means for Cali. with Eva Rodriguez, Washington Post Editorial Writer, and David Fathi, Director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we continue our conversations about the end of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." It ends today. We've checked in with some of Oprah's favorite people. In a few minutes, we'll talk with the editor of one of her favorite things - her magazine.

But first, we take a closer look at a Supreme Court decision that could have a dramatic effect on California's prison system - and perhaps other prison systems around the country. In a 5-to-4 decision released on Monday, the court ordered that California reduce its prison population by more than 33,000 inmates, even if that means setting some prisoners free.

The ruling upheld a lower court decision declaring that the consequences of prison overcrowding - poor living and health conditions; increased rates of death, including by suicide - constituted cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

Joining us to talk more about this is Washington Post editorial writer Eva Rodriguez. She specializes in legal affairs and in fact, used to cover the Supreme Court. She's with us from the studios of the Washington Post. Welcome back, Eva. Thanks for joining us once again.

EVA RODRIGUEZ (The Washington Post): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us, David Fathi. He's director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union - the ACLU - and he's here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios. David, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

DAVID FATHI (American Civil Liberties Union): Thanks. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: David, could you just describe what some of the conditions are? I say "are" because this is going on now at these institutions - that led to this decision.

FATHI: The conditions are horrifying. The one that always stays with me is the judge's finding that medical care is so bad that a prisoner is dying needlessly every six or seven days. You have mentally ill prisoners committing suicide because there's simply no safe place to put them because of the crowding. You have outbreaks of contagious disease that affect not only prisoners but the staff - and the families and communities that those staff go home to every night.

So the conditions are appalling, and I think most Americans will be shocked to learn that they exist in the United States in the 21st century.

MARTIN: Are you talking about one place, or are you talking about a number of different places?

FATHI: The problems are truly systemwide. At the time, the lower court ruled that the entire system was at close to 200 percent of its capacity, with some individual institutions at 300 percent. So the crowding is greater some places than others, but the entire system is badly, badly overcrowded.

MARTIN: Eva, talk about the ruling, if you would. Five-to-4 rulings have not - are not unusual with this court, but it just seemed as though the language of the ruling was particularly heated on both sides. Could you talk a little bit about that?

RODRIGUEZ: Sure. In the majority were Justice Kennedy, who was a Republican appointee but is considered that swing vote. And then he was joined by the four more, consistently liberal justices who - as David just said - in very strong language concluded that the appalling, intolerable conditions in the California prisons, vis-a-vis the lack of good, decent medical and mental health care, violated inmates' Eighth Amendment rights against - essentially - cruel and unusual punishment.

In the dissent, led by Justice Scalia and Justice Alito, the four more conservative justices gave a sort of nod to yeah, it may stink, folks, but it isn't the role of the court to jump in and micromanage prisons. You don't have the legal authority, and you don't have the expertise. So you know, language from the more conservative justices sort of pointed to not only the lack of authority for a court - in their opinion - but also the fact that in the words of Justice Scalia, you may see some 46,000 or 30,000 or so happy-go-lucky felons being let free, and that that could pose a public danger.

MARTIN: I'm puzzled a little bit by that phrase. What does he mean by happy-go-lucky felons? I don't think I - is that a term of art or something? I don't understand what that means.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RODRIGUEZ: I don't know. I think, I think I think, if I can get into the justice's mind for a moment, is he's thinking, you know, putting yourself in the shoes of a convicted felon who has many years ahead of him, suddenly being sort of, you know, hearing the key in the door and being let free and going, oh gee, I'm a lucky guy.

MARTIN: Well, just to clarify, does the decision require California to, in fact, let people go?

RODRIGUEZ: No, it doesn't, not in the sense that we're talking about here - meaning literally, opening the jail doors and letting people out. It requires California to reduce the population in the state prisons. But they could do that by, say, transferring some inmates to county facilities or even perhaps out-of-state facilities, placing lower-risk offenders in halfway houses, or not re-jailing folks who are out and violate their terms of parole, for example.

MARTIN: But just to clarify this, you know, David, we spoke this month to the director of - the executive director of the ACLU nationally, Anthony Romero. And we asked about the conditions at the L.A. County Men's Jail, where people are held before they've been - some are being held on minor crimes, misdemeanors, but some are just being held there because - in advance of a trial, so haven't been judged guilty of anything. And he talked about the conditions that he saw there. I just want to play a short clip of that conversation.

ANTHONY ROMERO (Executive Director, ACLU): The L.A. County Men's Jail, hands down, is the largest jail in the country - some say the world. We have access to it because we sued the L.A. County Men's Jail, and so we have unfettered access to any part of the facility. And so I went for a walk-through several months ago; I spent about four hours there. And what I saw was horrifying. I have never seen conditions like this anywhere. There's no way to fix this jail. We've got to close it down.

MARTIN: Well, based on what we just heard, is transferring prisoners to county jails really an option?

FATHI: Well, California has, I think, 55 counties - and they're not all in the same situation. Some counties do have some - at least say they have some capacity to absorb some prisoners from the state system. The Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail, as you say, has very serious problems already, and I don't think is in a position to accept any additional prisoners.

But I think the fundamental point here is that California needs to address the factors that have gotten it into this situation - its uniquely punitive three-strikes law; the no-parole policy that has been followed by a whole string of governors, both Democrats and Republicans. Until California addresses its addiction to over-incarceration, moving prisoners to the county jails is going to be at best, a short-term solution. It's going to be moving the problem, rather than solving the problem.

MARTIN: Well, when you say over-incarceration, what exactly are you talking about? I think most people would agree that if a person's committed a murder, a person's committed a rape, a person has committed a violent act - a drive-by shooting - where else should they be but in jail? So what are talking about when you say over-incarceration? Is there a particular group of people you're thinking about?

FATHI: Yes. I'm thinking about the tens of thousands of people who are in the California state prison system for nonviolent crimes. And again, under California's really unique three-strikes law, you can get a life sentence, a 25-year to life sentence - for stealing golf clubs, for shoplifting videos from a video store. Those are two real cases that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed those sentences.

So there are many people - not all - but many in the California state prison system who are nonviolent offenders, who do need some consequences but don't need to be locked up in this grossly overcrowded prison system.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're talking about the recent Supreme Court decision requiring California to reduce its prison population. The majority - in a narrow, 5-to-4 vote - ruled that the conditions were so intolerable as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Our guests are David Fathi, he's the director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union; and Washington Post editorial writer and former Supreme Court reporter Eva Rodriguez.

You know, Eva, the court ruling, as you might imagine, has sparked outrage from some quarters - both inside California and, you know, more broadly, particularly in the conservative legal community. I'm going to play a short clip from an interview by NPR's Richard Gonzales on MORNING EDITION, where he interviewed the chair of the Board of Prison Terms. This is the California State Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, and he decides who - this board decides who gets parole or doesn't get parole. This is what he had to say.

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN JIM NIELSEN (California): It's probably the most radical injunction issued by the court in our nation's history. And this radical injunction results in people being victims.

MARTIN: So Eva, is the outrage that people are expressing - does it have to do with fear of what people might do if they're let free? Or is it that they feel that the court overreached? And is there evidence to suggest that they did overreach, that this is beyond the scope of their authority?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think the reaction stems from both of the factors that you cited. On the one hand, the most easy to understand is the fear of, well, as you just referred to, you know, if these are bad guys - excuse me - if they've convicted of crimes, shouldn't they be behind bars? And why would we let them out early? I mean, I think that's a legitimate concern, that even Justice Kennedy, in the majority opinion requiring the release, acknowledged that any kind of release, any transfers, any transfers of individuals from high security to a lower security facility, has to be really weighed, thought out - and must be done cautiously.

Now, you know, there have been incidences in the past, in the 1990s, where a court-ordered release in Philadelphia went terribly, terribly wrong, where thousands of released prisoners ended up recidivating. And in fact, some of those who were released committed murders and rapes and violent assaults. And that led to - and I'm getting to the second part of your question - that led to Congress passing a law to sort of restrict court-ordered releases by judges. They wanted to make it relatively tough.

And so the second part of the outrage that you hear from some corners is, you know, this court, the Kennedy majority just violated the will of Congress by, you know, ordering this release. They ruled too broadly. They are, you know, they're intervening in matters in which judges do not have expertise, and they really did overreach. That's the second part of the outrage.

MARTIN: David, do you agree or do other people - do you find that a credible argument? And in the time we have left, I want to ask you to answer that question, and also talk a little bit about the plan that Governor Jerry Brown had before the court's ruling, to address overcrowding. I want to talk a little bit about that. But I do think it's fair to ask you to respond to the question, do you think that the court overreached?

FATHI: No, I don't. It is a fundamental principal of American law that when federal constitutional rights are violated, the federal courts will step in to enforce them, even on behalf of politically unpopular people like prisoners. Eva's correct that Congress did pass this law in 1996. That placed additional restrictions on any order that a court could issue that would limit prison populations.

The lower court meticulously went through all the additional steps, made all the additional finding that are required by that law and found that nevertheless, a prisoner release order was necessary. And that's the finding that the Supreme Court affirmed. So the courts were complying with this law that Congress passed.

MARTIN: So finally, before we let you go, Governor Jerry Brown had a plan to reduce overcrowding before the court reached its decision, as we said. That plan is estimated to cost some $300 million, if I have that right. Where's that money - I understand that that's not your responsibility - but where's that money supposed to come from, given that California's budget problems are extremely well-known? And how much time does the state have to implement this decision?

FATHI: Well, the state has two years from the Supreme Court's ruling last Monday, but the court also said that the state was free to ask the lower court for an extension in light of changed circumstances, and that the lower court should carefully consider any request from the state for an extension.

Incarceration is the most expensive response that we have to crime - about $47,000 a year in California for a single prisoner. So anything that we do to reduce the number of people incarcerated is going to generate massive savings over the long term.

MARTIN: And finally, David, are there are states where this could also be occurring, where the court's ruling might apply? Are there other states in a similar situation?

FATHI: I don't think so. This is a case - California's an extreme case. These are longstanding, massive and undisputed constitutional violations. And I'm not aware of any other state that's in nearly as bad shape as California. So I don't think we're going to see similar rulings.

MARTIN: David Fathi is the director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Eva Rodriguez is a Washington Post editorial writer. She specializes in legal affairs, and joins us from time to time to talk about those. She joined us from the studios of the Washington Post. Thank you both so much for joining us.

FATHI: Thank you.

FATHI: Thank you.

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