The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

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The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Supreme Court Hears Case on Prison Overcrowding

December 3, 2010 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday in a case that concerns whether overcrowding in California prisons, which has led to grossly unsanitary conditions and inadequate access to medical and mental health care, warrants a court ordered reduction of nearly 40,000 prisoners within two years.

Currently, California state prisons are at 200 percent capacity with some reaching 300 percent.  The state of California has admitted that overcrowding has led to high rates of preventable suicides, high rates of prisoners suffering from psychosis, outbreaks of serious and communicable diseases, and deaths due to neglect.

A federal three-judge court in 2009 found that the conditions caused by overcrowding violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and also issued an order requiring California to reduce its prison overcrowding within two years to 137.5 percent of what its intended capacity. But the state of California said the court’s plan would endanger public safety, was based on an arbitrary number, and failed to consider that the state has already taken steps to reduce its inmate population.  The state said the plan should therefore be thrown out.  It notably did not challenge whether or not the conditions violated the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

An amicus brief submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and others made the case that the prison and constitutional violations should also be regarded as human rights abuses.  Failing to provide prisoners with medical and mental healthcare is a violation of international law and the conditions in California prisons are out of compliance with human rights treaties that the U.S. has ratified, such as the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights. 

These treaties, the brief argued, "demonstrate a growing consensus that prisoners have a right to adequate medical treatment including, where appropriate, mental health services; and that the failure of the state to provide such treatment can constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and in certain situations, torture."

Justice Anthony Kennedy, frequently the swing vote in closely decided cases, said the federal court, "has to at some point focus on the remedy, and that's what it did, and that it seems to me was a perfectly reasonable decision."

Carter Phillips, an attorney representing the state of California argued "the reality is that anytime you say you are going to release 40,000 inmates in a very compressed period of time, I guarantee you that there is going to be more crime and people are going to die on the streets of California. I mean that – there is no way out of that particular box."

Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office, a non-profit law firm in Northern California, argued in favor of upholding the order and sought to dispel that notion.  He said that substantial reductions can be accomplished by not reincarcerating low-risk parolees for technical violations, awarding good time credits for well-behaved prisoners, releasing those who are elderly or infirm, and using out-of-state transfers. Governor Schwarzenegger submitted a revised plan to reduce the prison population by 37,000 in two years in 2009 along those lines, after the three-judge federal court rejected two other proposals by the state.

A decision is expected in the spring of 2011. The case is called Schwarzenegger v. Plata.

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