Can the Federal Courts Release State Prisoners Because of Overcrowding?

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on this issue.  The case arises out of California where on average 2 inmates must occupy the space constructed for just one.  A three-judge panel issued an order capping the total prison population at 137.5 percent of design capacity.  This result must be achieved within two years.  The order might result in approximately 40,000 inmates being set free.    The panel found that crowded prisons directly lead to the denial of medical and mental health services to which the inmates are constitutionally entitled under the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Counsel for the inmates describes the situation as follows:

Medical care in California’s prisons is in crisis despite eight years of judicial oversight. Prisoners are dying unnecessarily at the alarming rate of one every eight days because they do not receive basic medical care from the State. Prisoners are not properly screened for communicable and other serious diseases because there is no space in the overcrowded prisons to do so. If they are properly diagnosed they often do not receive timely medicine because the medication distribution system is so overburdened by the vast number of prisoners in a system designed for half as many. . .

Under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) three-judge panels can order the release of state prisoners as a last resort. Such a panel may not be convened to consider such relief unless the remedial orders entered by a single-judge district court have been given a “reasonable amount of time” to remedy the alleged violations. Crowded prisons must also be found to be the primary cause of the problems complained about.

California is challenging (1) the court’s authority to issue the order, (2) findings that overcrowding caused violations of inmate rights, and (3)  whether the release order goes beyond the Prison Litigation Reform Act inasmuch as it threatens public safety.   

This will be an interesting case to watch.  On the one hand, it exposes how government’s policy of simply locking up drug users and petty criminals leads to terrible conditions in our jails.  No doubt, much of the overcrowding comes from the failed War on Drugs.  There is no rehabilitation–we simply warehouse human beings for a set period of time.  On the other hand, one must question whether unelected federal judges are the proper parties to run a state’s prison system.  Aren’t issues like the construction of new prisons and use of prison space decisions for elected representatives?

Stay tuned for updates as this case progresses.

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