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A bitterly-divided Supreme Court has upheld a lower court order that requires California to reduce its prison population by some 33,000 prisoners. In a five-to-four vote, the high court ruled that severe overcrowding in state prisons has resulted in extreme suffering and even death, and that, they said, violates the Constitution and federal law.
NPR legal affairs correspondents Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: California's prison system designed to house 80,000 prisoners housed twice that many by 2009.
Mr. WAYNE SCOTT (Former Director of Corrections, Texas): The California state prison system is the worst, overcrowded system that I have seen in my experience.
TOTENBERG: Wayne Scott, who headed the Texas prison system under then-Governor George Bush, was one of many expert witnesses called in to look at California's system. That was after 20 years of litigation and failure by the state to achieve reforms it had agreed upon.
Scott and other prison experts told a special three-judge court that overcrowding was the primary cause of the state's prison problems. The court then ordered the state to reduce the prison population by 137 percent of capacity. The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and today it lost.
Writing for the five-member court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the court has long held that prisoners are, in essence, wards of the state since they can't provide for themselves.
Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care, said Kennedy. A prison system that fails to provide basic medical care is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in a civilized society.
California, he said, by virtue of its overcrowding, violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and courts, he said, must not shrink from their constitutional obligation to enforce the rights of all persons, including prisoners.
In a lengthy opinion, Kennedy laid out some of the facts of the case: prisoners not only doubled- and tripled-up in six-by-nine cells, but stacked in bunks in areas meant to be gymnasiums, classrooms, even clinics; sanitary facilities that have as many as 54 prisoners using one toilet and medical care so deficient that one prisoner dies needlessly every six to seven days.
On the mental health side, prisoners awaiting care are often housed in tiny, phone-booth-sized cages, with some inmates falling into hallucinations and catatonic states, and suicides way above national norms.
Justice Kennedy pointed out that the state had repeatedly agreed to fix these conditions by building more prisons, but the legislature didn't provide the money, and the overcrowding just grew worse.
Today, he observed, with a budgetary crisis, there is no possibility the state can build itself out of its overcrowding problem. So the state will have to choose a combination of other methods, even perhaps release of non-violent prisoners, to reduce the state prison population.
Joining Kennedy in the majority were Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.
In an angry oral dissent from the bench, Justice Antonin Scalia called the court's decision radical, outrageous, wildly beyond the institutional capacity of courts. The result, he said, would be the release of tens of thousands of happy-go-lucky felons.
Ms. JEANNE WOODFORD (Former Warden, San Quentin): I don't think that the state of California has to release anyone really.
TOTENBERG: Jeanne Woodford, former warden of the San Quentin prison, and head of the California Department of Corrections. She and other expert witnesses, point to a variety of ways California can reduce overcrowding, short of releasing prisoners.
Ms. WOODFORD: This is really about making our minds up that prison is for violent offenders, and others should be kept at the local level. It costs $50,000 per year to keep someone in state prison. It can be done much more cheaply at the local level.
TOTENBERG: Indeed, California has recently enacted a prison realignment law to do just that, but the funds have yet to be appropriated for the local transfers.
Donald Specter, whose litigation led to today's ruling, suggests there may have to be changes to California's three-strikes law as well, that imposes mandatory, 25-year minimums on three-time offenders, even if their crimes are nonviolent.
Mr. DONALD SPECTER (Attorney): There are a lot of second-strikers who get their sentence doubled just because they've had another strike. So instead of a burglary being five years, automatically it's 10.
TOTENBERG: California has two years to make all of these changes, unless it can get the lower courts to give it an extension, something the Supreme Court suggested today is an option the lower courts may consider.
Late today, Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections, spelled out the state's plans.
Mr. MATTHEW CATE (Secretary, California Department of Corrections): The number one goal at this point is to do whatever is necessary, both from the legislative point of view and with corrections, to implement AB109, which is the governor's plan for realigning corrections. This will take us a long way towards complying with the court's order.
TOTENBERG: Translation: California hopes to avoid releasing any prisoners.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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