WASHINGTON — California's criminally overcrowded prisons will pose some particularly trying questions Tuesday for the U.S. Supreme Court.
With officials in other states watching closely, justices will consider whether a lower court acted properly in ordering California to reduce its inmate population dramatically.
The high court already has acknowledged the case's complications, by increasing the oral argument time to 80 minutes from the usual 60. The crucial legal questions are acutely technical, though the consequences will resonate behind bars and on the streets.
The lower court's judgment "will require the state to reduce its prison population by roughly 38,000 to 46,000 inmates within two years," warned California's attorney, Carter G. Phillips, adding that "the release of these inmates will jeopardize the safety of California residents" unless major investments in rehabilitation are made.
The offsetting rehabilitation investments, Phillips added, are politically and financially unrealistic.
Phillips is a Washington-based veteran of some 68 previous Supreme Court oral arguments.
His opposite number, Donald Specter of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Prison Law Office, casts the consequences in starkly different terms.
"Overcrowding causes extreme peril to the lives of prisoners and prison staff," Specter argues, adding that "prisoners are dying unnecessarily at the alarming rate of one every eight days because they do not receive basic medical care from the state."
Reducing prison overcrowding doesn't necessarily mean that thousands of inmates will be set loose, Specter said. Other options include transferring inmates to other jurisdictions, diverting nonviolent inmates to jails and restructuring parole so that fewer violators are returned to prison.
As often happens, Tuesday's oral arguments could become mired in arcana, such as the meaning of specific language within the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act.
The Supreme Court will decide whether a three-judge district court panel that consists of California-based federal judges had the authority under the 14-year-old law to order the inmate release. The court also will address whether inmate overcrowding was the "primary cause" of unconstitutionally bad care and, even if it was, whether the inmate release order went too far.
"If the three-judge court's order were allowed to stand, the state would constantly have thousands more criminals on the streets," Louisiana Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell argued in a legal brief endorsed by Alaska, Texas, South Carolina, Illinois, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and 11 other states.
All 18 states that are siding with California warn in their amicus brief that they, too, may "someday be forced to defend against lawsuits filed ... with the aim of forcing large-scale prisoner releases."
California's 33 state prisons are holding roughly 160,000 inmates, nearly twice what they were built for. In official parlance, cited in one recent legal brief, the prisons are operating "at 190 percent of design capacity."
Last January, after extensive litigation, the three-judge panel ordered California to reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of the system's design capacity. The judges concluded that this was necessary to avoid violating Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
"California's prisons are bursting at the seams and are impossible to manage," the judges wrote.
The panel's unanimous, 184-page decision graphically spelled out current prison conditions. Bunks are crammed into gyms or are stacked three to a cell. The California prison suicide rate, roughly 25 per 100,000 inmates, is nearly twice the national average for prisons.
Mentally ill inmates "languish in horrific conditions," the judges said. Overcrowding means "inmate-on-inmate violence is almost impossible to prevent." Inmates must "wait months or years for medically necessary appointments."
The unsympathetic character of many of the plaintiffs complicates the case.
One-time San Jose, Calif., resident Raymond F. Johns, for instance, was convicted in 1995 of strangling his wife and, later, his girlfriend. He also had solicited a gang member to kill his girlfriend's sister. By 2001, he was languishing on San Quentin's death row and was partially blind because of untreated cataracts.
Johns died in 2004 at age 79, several years after he joined one of the original lawsuits that led, in time, to the appeal that will be heard at 11 a.m. Tuesday.
"To a prisoner, time behind bars is not some theoretical or mathematical concept," Specter said, citing the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy. "It is something real, even terrifying. Survival itself is at stake."
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