If on November 6, 2012, you enter the voting booth and remain undecided on how to cast your ballot for president, pause to consider a single Supreme Court decision handed down last week. After weighing the legal reasoning of that decision, and more importantly its consequences, both actual and potential, go ahead and choose your candidate accordingly. But be warned: If you live in California, you may wish to mail in an absentee ballot at the earliest opportunity, as your chances of surviving until Election Day have just been somewhat diminished.
I refer to the case of Brown v. Plata (.pdf), in which Justice Anthony Kennedy joined his more reliably liberal colleagues in upholding a lower court order directing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reduce the state’s prison population by as many as 46,000 within two years.
It is undeniable that California’s penitentiaries are overcrowded. The state’s prisons are designed to hold 84,000 inmates but currently house about 143,000. There were more than 171,000 state prison inmates in California as recently as 2008, and indeed Justice Kennedy, who authored the opinion, notes that the state’s prisons “had operated at around 200% of design capacity for at least 11 years.”
The effect of this overcrowding, the Court ruled, was to deny some prisoners a constitutionally guaranteed level of medical and/or mental health care, a denial that in the majority’s opinion rose to such a level that it amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment” within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment. Kennedy cites the fact that California’s prison suicide rate was nearly 80 percent higher than the national average for prison populations and that nearly three-fourths of these suicides involved “some measure of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention, and were therefore most probably foreseeable and/or preventable.” He also cites prisoners who died after their medical conditions were improperly addressed. “A prisoner with severe abdominal pain,” he writes of one example, “died after a 5-week delay in referral to a specialist.”
Kennedy sums up the majority’s exasperation with the state of affairs in California’s prisons thus:
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. Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result. 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.
No doubt there are many sad tales to be told about conditions within the walls of California’s prisons, but if it is needless suffering and death the majority truly wishes to avoid, they would not have decided this case as they did. Justice Samuel Alito, in a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, makes this point:
In the early 1990s, federal courts enforced a cap on the number of inmates in the Philadelphia prison system, and thousands of inmates were set free. Although efforts were made to release only those prisoners who were least likely to commit violent crimes, that attempt was spectacularly unsuccessful. During an18-month period, the Philadelphia police rearrested thousands of these prisoners for committing 9,732 new crimes. Those defendants were charged with 79 murders, 90 rapes, 1,113 assaults, 959 robberies, 701 burglaries, and 2,748 thefts, not to mention thousands of drug offenses . . . .
The prisoner release ordered in this case is unprecedented, improvident, and contrary to the [Prison Litigation Reform Act]. In largely sustaining the decision below, the majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California. Before putting public safety at risk, every reasonable precaution should be taken. The decision below should be reversed, and the case should be remanded for this to be done. I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see.
Residents of Los Angeles and nearby communities should find this most troubling, as the greatest share of the coming tidal wave of released felons will be returning to a neighborhood just an easy drive down the freeway from … you! Following the typical pattern, in 2010 more than two-thirds of all admissions into California prisons came from Southern California. (The San Francisco Bay area’s share was 10 percent, and the entire rest of the state’s was only 22 percent.)