Supreme Court Demands California Release 30,000 Inmates

Just how bad is the state's prison overcrowding? More than 40 inmates had to share one toilet. And that's just the beginning.

By Julianne Hing May 24, 2011

The Supreme Court ruled Monday by a 5-4 vote that California prison overcrowding is unconstitutional, and forced the state to release some 30,000 inmates in the next three years. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that overcrowding led to severe violations of inmates’ basic rights and led to a well-documented history of "needless suffering and death."

The ruling affirmed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s ruling that called for the release of up to 46,000 prisoners. The state shed some prisoners after it temporarily sent inmates to out-of-state prisons, and sent those in state prison to county jails. The court’s mandate will force the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of its capacity.

"For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs," Kennedy wrote. "Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding."

Kennedy said in his opinion that prison overcrowding led to terrible conditions where more than 40 inmates had to share one toilet, or over 200 people were housed in a gym. Lawyers said that prison overcrowding and poor health care drove prisoners with mental illness to commit suicide in "holding tanks where observation windows are obscured with smeared feces," and inmates were "discovered catatonic in pools of their own urine after spending nights in locked cages."

There are about 146,000 inmates right now incarcerated in California prisons that were meant for just 80,000 people, Southern California’s KPCC reported Monday.

"This landmark decision opens an important new chapter in California’s long struggle over whether to expand or contract our bloated prison system," says Emily Harris, the statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a progressive criminal justice reform group. "This is an important moment for California to push forward much needed parole and sentencing reforms to reduce California’s prison population."

Harris said that among the options available was the amendment or repeal of the state’s three strikes law, which calls for longer sentences for people who are convicted of a felony if they’ve been convicted of one or more serious felonies in the past. Harsh sentencing policy means that many people are serving 25 years to life in prison for crimes that range from violent assault to possession of drugs. KALW’s The Informant reported that as of December of 2010, 40,998 Californians were incarcerated on third strike offenses and 8,727 were in prison for what was considered their third strike.

Harris added that the state had plenty of other options to deal with overcrowding, including releasing terminally ill patients and eliminating laws that demand people who violate their parole be returned to prison and revisiting drug sentencing laws, which have fueled much of the prison population growth of the last few decades.

According to Critical Resistance, a prison abolition group, California spending on prisons has grown from five to ten percent of the state’s general fund in the last decade. Thirty years ago, the state spent two percent of its money on corrections.

Criminal justice reform advocates say that harsh, punitive mass incarceration doesn’t necessarily improve public safety. Mike Males over at the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice found in a new report that Three Strikes implementation varies from county to county–prosecutors have a great deal of discretion when it comes to deciding whether and which which a person’s offense will be counted as a "strike." Males also found that the counties that used the law the most didn’t actually see any improvement, or impact whatsoever, on crime levels.

"The Supreme Court has done the right thing by acknowledging what even the state itself has not disputed — that the egregious and extreme overcrowding in California’s prisons contributes to a failure by the state to keep its prisoners safe by providing the basic levels of medical and mental health care mandated by the U.S. Constitution," said David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Farris, too, called on the state to tackle drug sentencing reform.

"Today’s decision crystallizes the urgent need for California to invest in meaningful parole and sentencing reforms and alternatives to incarceration, especially for low-level, non-violent offenders. Reducing the number of people in prison not only would save state taxpayers half a billion dollars annually, it would lead to the implementation of truly rehabilitative programs that lower recidivism rates and create safer communities."