WASHINGTON — All 50 states got a wakeup call this week when the Supreme Court ordered California to aggressively reduce its prison overcrowding.
The court's decision will make it easier for judges to shrink prison populations elsewhere. It also could embolden other challenges to prison conditions well beyond California.
"It's a helpful precedent, and it says that the federal courts will step in when necessary to enforce the essential rights of prisoners," David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said Tuesday.
That's exactly what Texas, Louisiana, Alaska and 15 other states seemed to be skittish about when they filed a friend-of-the-court brief on California's behalf.
They "may someday be forced to defend against lawsuits filed ... with the aim of forcing large-scale prisoner releases," the states' brief warned.
Overcrowding is particularly pronounced in several of the states that joined the brief supporting California, Bureau of Justice Statistics records show; these states with jammed prisons include Illinois, Alabama and Massachusetts.
On the other hand, one of the attorneys who helped draft the states' brief said Tuesday that Justice Anthony Kennedy's 52-page Supreme Court opinion was "pretty fact specific" concerning California. By this reasoning, the decision's consequences may be narrower than prisoner advocates hope.
"There's nothing in the opinion that suggests a court will necessarily approve other prisoner release orders," said Peter Carr, an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia and a co-author of the states' amicus brief.
At present, there are no other prisoner release orders covering other states, and Carr said that "we hope" the new court decision won't have many ripple effects beyond California.
The pair of California cases commonly known as Brown v. Plata dated to a 1990 lawsuit filed by inmates who said mental health care had suffered as a result of overcrowded prisons. A three-judge panel agreed and ordered the state to reduce its prison population to about 110,000, which is 137.5 percent of the prisons' design capacity.
Corcoran State Prison in California's San Joaquin Valley, for instance, is home to infamous characters such as Charles Manson and has a design capacity of 3,116 inmates. It housed 4,900 as of April, 157 percent of its design capacity.
Other California facilities, including Mule Creek State Prison near Sacramento and the Deuel Vocational Institution near Stockton, housed twice as many inmates in April as they were built for, state records show.
California needs to reduce its overall prison population by roughly 30,000 to meet the target the three-judge panel imposed.
Writing for a 5-4 majority, Kennedy on Monday upheld the panel's reasoning that the overcrowding violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and upheld the panel's solution as well.
"The state may employ measures, including good-time credits and diversion of low-risk offenders and technical parole violators to community-based programs, that will mitigate the order's impact," Kennedy noted, while acknowledging the "unprecedented sweep and extent" of the prisoner release order.
The court's decision Monday broke new ground in other ways, too.
It marked the first time that the Supreme Court has evaluated a prisoner release order since Congress imposed stiff requirements for such orders under the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act.
Before that law passed, a single judge essentially could regulate jail and prison populations. Starting in the late 1980s, for instance, a federal judge in Pennsylvania imposed a strict jail population cap that at times forced Philadelphia to release several hundred jail inmates a week.
The subsequent murder of 21-year-old rookie police Officer Daniel Boyle by a recently released inmate, Edward Bracey, helped incite Congress to impose the stricter prisoner-release requirements, which include the use of a three-judge panel.
The Supreme Court's decision this week clarifies that even the 1995 law "should not be interpreted to place undue restrictions" on the power of federal courts to impose prison revisions when necessary. This could empower lower courts in other cases.
"Congress limited the availability of limits on prison populations, but it did not forbid these measures altogether," Kennedy noted.
The court's majority, moreover, specified that a prisoner release order required to protect mental and physical health can extend to inmates who aren't sick. This further offers lower courts more leeway in crafting future prisoner-release plans.
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