SC Clears the Way for Prisoner Release in California

Yesterday the Supreme Court released its decision in Brown v. Plata. That case arose out of California, where state prisons had been operating at around 200% capacity for at least 11 years. This resulted in myriad deficiencies in providing healthcare and mental healthcare for prisoners amounting to violations of the Eighth Amendment as well as unnecessary deaths. A three judge panel ordered that California remedy these violations by reducing prison populations to no more than 137.5% of design capacity, and the Supreme Court upheld that decision.

Ultimately, 137.5% means that there were 46,000 too many prisoners, but it does not mean that they must all be released. Instead, the state could construct new prisons, expand existing prisons, transfer prisoners to other states or to county facilities, increase good time credits, and increase the use of diversion and community-based programs. Indeed, California has already reduced the prison population by at least 9,000 while the appeal was going on. And the state has 2 years from the date of the Supreme Court opinion to achieve this. On the other hand, getting rid of 37,000 prisoners in 2 years is no small feat.

The dissents were concerned with the fact that this remedy would damage the public safety and result in the release of many prisoners whose Eighth Amendment rights have not been violated:

"It is also worth noting the peculiarity that the vast majority of inmates most generously rewarded by the release order—the 46,000 whose incarceration will be ended— do not form part of any aggrieved class even under the Court’s expansive notion of constitutional violation. Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym."

(Scalia, J., dissenting).

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