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US Supreme Court: Release 46,000 From California Prisons

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on May 24, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

California’s prison system has been under scrutiny and the issue of California’s prison overcrowding has finally been addressed by SCOTUS. On appeal from the United States District Court, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a judicial order that would result in the release of up to 46,000 California prisoners.

In the majority were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Anthony Kennedy.

California’s prisons have been operating at 200% of design capacity for the last 11 years, says the Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Kennedy. Prison conditions in California have been described as “appalling” and “inhumane,” writes Forbes, citing some examples from the Supreme Court opinion, including the death of a prisoner complaining of severe abdominal pain after a delay of five weeks in referring the inmate to a specialist.

The case stems from two previous federal class actions, namely Coleman v. Brown (1990) and Plata v. Brown (2001). In both cases, the cases involved plaintiffs who were ill: in Coleman, the plaintiffs were a class of mentally ill California prisoners and in Plata, the prisoners had serious medical conditions.

The cases, while adjudicating in the favor of the plaintiffs, still didn't resolve the issue of overcrowding in California prisons. Subsequently, the plaintiffs each requested that a three-judge panel of the District Court issue an order to reduce the prison population. Following fourteen days of testimony, the panel released an opinion in February of 2009. The opinion ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent capacity within two years.

As expected, however, Scalia dissented, calling the proceedings "a judicial travesty," writes Courthouse News.

Writes Justice Scalia: "One would think that, before allowing the decree of a federal district court to release 46,000 convicted felons, this Court would bend every effort to read the law in such a way as to avoid that outrageous result."

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