The United States Supreme Court will hear argument Tuesday morning in one of the most important cases
of the current term: a dispute between California and the federal courts over whether the state must release criminals from prison early to alleviate overcrowding that has become so dire there
that it has been found to be unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual" under the Eighth Amendment.
At stake in the matter, styled Schwarzenegger v. Plata
, isn't just whether and when 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners in the Golden State will be released before their full sentences are served. It's also about whether the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act should be interpreted in a way that will encourage other inmate challenges to other officials running overcrowded prisons in other states. It's a case that highlights the vast failure
of California's prison system and focuses attention again
on the nation's vast and sprawling prison industry
, which churns out a new prison every week to meet the demand supplied by lawmakers and prosecutors and juries. All around the country, state politicians, law-enforcement officials, local prosecutors and other members of the criminal justice system are closely following the case.
It all began, as many of these conflicts do, in California. Responding to a class-action lawsuit brought by prisoners, and following a lengthy series of evidentiary hearings, a special three-judge panel found last year
that the state simply has too many prisoners kept in too few prisons with too few doctors to care for them. The judges wrote:
Tragically, California's inmates have long been denied even that minimal level of medical and mental health care, with consequences that have been serious, and often fatal. Inmates are forced to wait months or years for medically necessary appointments and examinations, and many receive inadequate medical care in substandard facilities that lack the medical equipment required to conduct routine examinations or afford essential medical treatment. Seriously mentally ill inmates languish in horrific conditions without access to necessary mental health care, raising the acuity of mental illness throughout the system and increasing the risk of inmate suicide. A significant number of inmates have died as a result of the state's failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical care. As of mid-2005, a California inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days.
Accordingly, the panel ordered California to reduce its inmate population by tens of thousands of prisoners to improve the conditions for those prisoners who would remain incarcerated. The judges acknowledged that the prisoner release would require a reallocation of spending between state and local government. "Counties may well require additional financial resources from the state in order to ensure that no significant adverse public safety impact results from the state's population reduction measures," the judges wrote. "Counties may, for example, need additional financial resources in order to fund the additional costs of ongoing rehabilitation, re-entry, drug or alcohol, educational, and job training programs. Reducing the number of persons it imprisons should result in significant savings to the state. We do not now decide whether and to what extent the state should allocate part of its savings from such reductions to the counties. ..."
State officials, led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, appealed this ruling, and a subsequent ruling
, even as they prepare to implement its directives. California officials say they are aware of the problems noted by the judges, agree that the present state of overcrowding is unacceptable, and have offered their own plan to reduce prison populations in the state by releasing some non-violent offenders and by sending other inmates to out-of-state prisons. But California also says that the judges went too far, legally and practically, in crafting the release order. State officials say that any constitutional violations stemming from any overcrowding are no longer occurring so that they may not form the basis for the remedy currently being imposed by the courts.
Moreover, California has told the justices that it cannot promise that the money saved from its prison budget -- money saved because there will be fewer prisoners -- will be spent on ensuring public safety. "There is," state lawyers wrote in their brief, "no guarantee that California, which remains mired in fiscal crisis, has the financial ability to offer those services, or that the political branches would agree to direct available funds to released prisoners rather than other pressing needs." Other states have chimed in
on the debate on California's side, arguing that the federal judges exceeded their authority under the Prison Litigation Reform Act by not properly evaluating whether the ordered release would "invariably place innocent citizens at much greater risk of victimization."
Since the case began, half a decade ago, there are 8,000 fewer inmates in California's prisons. But now the justices have to determine the proper scope of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, whether the judges exceeded it when they issued their landmark ruling last year, and whether California ought to have more power to decide for itself the timing of its prison reform. Not surprisingly, then, the justices have expanded the length of Tuesday's argument an extra 20 minutes -- up to 80 minutes
-- to ensure the lawyers have an opportunity to tackle the complex issues involved.