Tuesday, May 24, 2011

California ordered to release 33,000 inmates

Washington - Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for a bitterly divided U.S. Supreme Court ordering the release of 33,000 prisoners from overcrowded California prisons.

He was joined by the Court's liberal wing in ruling that the prison system, which has been operating at 200% of its design capacity of 80,000 prisoners, violates the U.S. Constitution's 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment of ailing and mentally ill prisoners denied medical care.

Under the order, the first to be issued under a new federal law that allows U.S. District Courts to cap the amount of prisoners housed in an overcrowded state's lockups, California has two years to reduce its total prison population of 143,000 to 110,000 – about 137% of design capacity.

The state may apply for and receive more time to comply with the order in the two inmate civil rights cases under review, both of which have languished in the court system for more than 20 years.

In an unusual move, Mr. Justice Kennedy included photos of overcrowded gymnasiums where as many as 200 inmates are guarded by as few as 2 corrections officers. He also included photos of telephone booth-sized cells without toilets in which mentally ill inmates are forced to stand in puddles of their own urine and excrement for as long as 24 hours while they await transfer to a mental health facility.

A diabetic prisoner who was denied medication for hypertension began to bleed internally and was dead within 3 weeks after he finally got treatment from a nephrologist, according to allegations of complaint in one of the lawsuits. A judge in that case wrote that it appeared that the state would hire “any doctor with two hands and two feet and a pulse.”

Mr. Justice Kennedy stated that overcrowded conditions lead to disease because of a lack of sanitation and toilets, and that suicide among mentally ill convicts and inmates runs 80% higher than in the general population.

Dissenting opinions by Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito expressed disdain for the order, predicting dire consequences for society if and when California's excess of prisoners are released.

The majority opinion sided with a 3-judge U.S. District Court panel that concluded that California cannot build its way out of the overcrowding crisis. The state is facing a $25 billion budget shortfall.

Though a new law has been passed allowing the transfer of prisoners from state lockups to County Jails, the legislature has so far failed to fund the County budgets to pay for housing the inmates in vacant areas of county jails.

Justice Kennedy ruled that many of the prisoners held in California prisons may be diverted to community supervision programs, since most of them have been convicted of non-violent offenses.

In the year 1998, the national prison population of non-violent offenders serving time in local, state and federal jails exceeded one million for the first time.

At the time, the Department of Justice said in a report that 52.7% of state inmates, 73.7% of jail inmates and 87.6% of federal inmates were imprisoned “for offenses which involved neither harm, nor the threat of harm, to a victim.”

In that year, there were 440,088 nonviolent jail inmates, 639,280 nonviolent state prison inmates, and 106,,090 nonviolent federal prisoners.

The U.S. Justice Council noted at the time that “Over a million people have been warehoused for nonviolent, often petty crimes, due to our inability, our choice to not sort out America's lingering social problems from those which threaten us with real harm.”

In 1998, the nonviolent prison population exceeded the population of the states of Wyoming and Alaska.

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