US Supreme Court likely to uphold California prison population cap

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An inmate at the Mule Creek State Prison walks near the bunk beds in a gymnasium that was modified to house prisoners in Ione, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2007. The Mule Creek State Prison has had to modify several facilities to make room for an increasing number of inmates.

Last year three federal judges ordered California to reduce overcrowding they said deprived inmates of adequate medical and mental health care. California appealed that order to the nation’s highest court, which on Tuesday heard oral arguments on the state’s appeal. The US Supreme Court appears likely to uphold the population cap for California’s prisons.

Last year when three federal judges ordered California to reduce its prisoner population by a third — about 40,000 inmates — they said that was the only way to remedy chronic problems with inmates’ medical and mental healthcare, exacerbated by severe overcrowding in state prisons.

Prisoners dying, committing suicide, “and spending time in feces-smeared cells because there’s no room for them in other areas,” are the conditions the inmates’ attorney Don Specter described in briefs and in oral arguments.

He said the problems result in one inmate death every week and a suicide rate double the national average. On the steps of the courthouse after the hearing, Specter said most Supreme Court justices indicated that they had a clear picture of the risks overcrowding poses to inmates and prison staff. Specter said California prison officials admit as much.

“The pictures of overcrowding which are on the Department of Corrections’ website which you can look at all show a horrible situation,” said Specter.

California’s attorney Carter Phillips counters that, “all those awful photos were taken back five, seven, eight years ago.”

Phillips said conditions in state prisons have greatly improved since a federal receiver assumed control of prison medical care four years ago. Phillips told the justices that the government should allow the receiver to complete the job … and that the lower court “jumped the gun” when it ordered the prison population cap.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said the state had failed to comply with two decades of lower court orders to fix inmate’s medical and mental health care. She asked Phillips, “how much longer do we have to wait, another 20 years?”

Chief Justice John Roberts suggested more sympathy for California’s position that a population cap poses risks to public safety. During the hearing, Phillips told the justices that if the state addresses the crowding as ordered, “people are going to die on the streets of California.”

“The reality is you’re talking about 30,000 to 45,000 inmates, not all of whom are low risk,” said Phillips. “In circumstances where my esteemed colleague recognized there’s a 70 percent recidivism rate … under those circumstances crimes are going to be committed and they’re going to be committed by a significant amount of people.”

Phillips said California officials think they can safely reduce the prison population safely if they get more time years to make it happen. Phillips argued that the extra time would allow the state to help convicts re-enter society and reduce recidivism.

“There are a lot of programs that you can implement hopefully successfully in five years that you simply can’t do in two years,” he said.

Most US Supreme Court justices signaled that they agree with the lower court’s decision to issue a population cap for California’s prisons. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote on the court, said, “It seems to me a perfectly reasonable decision.”

But Kennedy also indicated that he might want to scale back how many inmates the state releases. And Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that the court allow California that longer time frame of five years to get the job done. The nation’s highest court could strike down the order or uphold it as is. But from the questions the justices asked, it appears more likely they’ll remand the order to the lower court for some tweaks.

Justice Samuel Alito indicated he’ll dissent from any ruling that upholds California’s prison population cap.

“If I were a citizen of California,” he said during the hearing, “I’d be very concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners.”

The US Supreme Court has until next summer to issue a ruling.

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