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Supreme Court Orders California To Release Thousands Of Prisoners

The Supreme Court ordered California to release tens of thousands of inmates to reduce overcrowding in state prisons.  In this photo from January 2010, you see a gym at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility that was converted in 1989 into a housing unit for 152 Level 3 inmates (medium to high security). There are three officers monitoring this housing. Many of the bunks are three levels high.
Angela Carone
The Supreme Court ordered California to release tens of thousands of inmates to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. In this photo from January 2010, you see a gym at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility that was converted in 1989 into a housing unit for 152 Level 3 inmates (medium to high security). There are three officers monitoring this housing. Many of the bunks are three levels high.
Supreme Court Orders California To Release Thousands Of Prisoners
In an effort to reduce overcrowding and "needless suffering and death," the Supreme Court ordered California to release thousands of prisoners. We discuss the factors that influenced the high court's decision, and what this ruling could mean for San Diego.

In an effort to reduce overcrowding and "needless suffering and death," the Supreme Court ordered California to release thousands of prisoners. We discuss the factors that influenced the high court's decision.


Dan Eaton, Midday Edition Legal Analyst


Donald Spector, Director of the Prison Law Office. Mr. Spector argued the case in the Supreme Court.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, which is KPBS Midday Edition. California state officials fought against it. But despite their arguments, today the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the state to release inmates from our overcrowded prisons. As local officials determine the impact of this ruling on the county's jails and parole departments, we've asked midday edition legal analyst, Dan Eaton, it tell us about the legal reasoning behind the Supreme Court decision. And good morning, Dan.

EATON: Good -- well, it's actually afternoon, Maureen. I think. We're into our old habits.

CAVANAUGH: You are right. It is afternoon. Good afternoon, Dan. Thank you so much. The state of California brought this issue to the Supreme Court. What were their arguments?

EATON: Well, their basic arguments were, look, they were too hasty in convening this three judge panel, those what the prisons brought this lawsuit. And they said essentially the state ought to be given more time to consider kind of alternatives to the broad release that the prisoners were seeking. It's penitentiary to understand, Maureen, that there were two different cases. One was brought on behalf of prisoners with serious mental health conditions. The other case was brought on behalf of those with broader serious medical conditions upon either way, the state said, look, give us more time to deal with this before having a wholesale release of prisoners to relieve over crowding.


CAVANAUGH: Did they also argue that perhaps the federal panel that original ordered the release of prisoners didn't have the authority to do it?

EATON: Yes, they argued that the prison litigation reform act limited their power to issue -- issue a ruling concerning overcrowded and the release of prisoners if certain conditions weren't met. And they said that these conditions simply weren't met. What the state argued among other things was that, look, there is no indication that this is the most narrowly tailored way of relieving these constitutional violations that you've identified, specifically the constitutional right to adequate medical and mental healthcare.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, some of the statements from the majority opinion seem rather appalled by prison over crowding in California. Who wrote the majority opinion?

EATON: The only Californian on the Court, Maureen, actually. Justice Anthony Kennedy, formerly of Sacramento and formerly of the 9th circuit U.S. court of appeals. He wrote the opinion as you said, they do indicate as the three judge panel below indicated a serious disgust with the conditions in the California state prison system and a desire to say enough already. It's time to move on. And it's time to implement these remedies, including potentially the release of prisoners to alleviate these problems with inadequate mental and medical healthcare.

CAVANAUGH: Was this a five four decision?

EATON: It was, it was a five four decision. And it was a very sharp low divided court, actually. Justice Kennedy was very clear that these can bes had gone on long enough. Not only did the Court actually use specific examples of failure of care, for example, one psychiatric patient who supposedly stood in his own urine for several hours and so forth, and was observed by an outside observer doing this, some really ark Pauling conditions, but also he said the state has been given long enough time. Interestingly though, mar ear, it's important to understand, that justice Kennedy went out of his way to do two things. One he said, technically, the order doesn't require the release of any prisoners. He says that the reduction in population could be achieved through other means butch barring that, yes, there will have to be a significant release of other prisoners, one of the alternatives byes way, that justice Kennedy identified, was a transfer of certain prisoners to community facilities. And good time credits, and so forth. So there are alternatives. Of the other thing he went out of his way to say throughout the opinion is that the state has a great deal of flexibility in the way they implement this particular order. But justice Kennedy said it is very clear that there were constitutional violations and that whatever needs to be done to relieve the problem, primarily caused by over crowding, that's causing these constitutional violations must be done with dispatch.

CAVANAUGH: So the Court doesn't necessarily say that the prisoners have to be released on their own recognizance on the streets but they do have to get out of the state prisons in one way or another.

EATON: Well, that seems to be the indication that there's going to have to be release at some time. But justice Kennedy makes a couple of suggestions to the state towards the end of this opinion. For example, he says, look, take the time now to identify potentially low risk reoffenders. Take that time right now and also he says, look, you can ask for a deadline, an extension of the deadline. The deadline was -- that the Court ordered, the three judge panel ordered, was December of 2011. He said you may, the state, ask for a deadline five years from the date of the Supreme Court's own order. But understand that the three judge panel is probably going to set some conditions on granting any kind of deadline, such as some indication that you're moving this thing along and taking steps to comply with the problem that brought us here in the first place.

CAVANAUGH: Who wrote the dissent?

EATON: There are two actual dissents, which is very interesting. Justice Scalia wrote one, and Justice Alito wrote the other. And the dissents were very, very pointed, Maureen. This is what justice Scalia wrote. "Today, the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history, an order requiring California to release a staggering number of 46 thousand convicted criminals. One would think that before allowing the decree of a federal district court to release 46-thousand convicted felons, this court would bend every effort to read the law in such a way to avoid that outrageous result. Today, quite to the contrary, the Court disregards stringently drawn provisions of the governing statute," meaning the prison litigation reform act, "and traditional constitutional limitations upon the power of the federal judge in order to uphold the absurd."

This is how justice Alito ends his dissenting opinion, Maureen, quote, "The prisoner release order in this case is unprecedented, improvident, and contrary to the prison litigation reform act. In largely sustaining the decision below, the majority is dabbling with the safety of the people of California before putting public safety at risk, every reason precaution should be taken. The decision below should be reversed and the case should be remanded for this to be done. I fear that today's decision like prior prison release orders will head to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years. We will see," close quote.

CAVANAUGH: Wow, talk about sharply divided. They weren't kidding. Dan, I want to thank you so much. Thank you, Dan. That was midday edition legal analyst, Dan Eaton. Now, to give you some background on this decision, we have a clip from Clark Kelso. He is the federal receiver originally appointed to determine if California inmates were getting constitutionally mandated healthcare. He explained to KPBS last year why it's crucial that prison inmates get healthcare from the state when a lot of free citizens don't.


NEW SPEAKER: The technical legal answer is that there's a huge difference between government's responsibility to you as a citizen, a free citizen, government's responsibility to someone that government is incarcerating. Once you have incarcerated someone, government has a constitutional obligation under the eighth amendment to provide certain levels of care. And that's what the state has to do.

CAVANAUGH: That was the federal receiver, Clark Kelso. Joining us now, Donald Spector, director of the prison law office who argued the case before the Supreme Court. Hello, Donald.


CAVANAUGH: Congratulations. Thank you for joining us.

SPECTOR: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Now, did the majority opinion affirm every aspect of the case you argued before the Court?

SPECTOR: Exactly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so what does that mean?

SPECTOR: It means that California has to reduce its prison population through whatever means it decides it wants to do that in two years. So it's -- leaves all the decision on how to reduce the population within the governor and to some extent the legislature. And they have two years to do it. It does not mean that the gates are gonna come open and 30 thousand prisoners are gonna walk out tomorrow. So there are many safe ways for prisons to -- populations to be reduced. You can increase good time credits, you can transfer them out of state, you can reform parole. Many states have done this to great effect and with a lot of budget every savings.

CAVANAUGH: What is the hope that this will mean for people who are incarcerated in the state prisons? Are you hoping for better living conditions? Are you hoping exclusively for better access to healthcare facilities? What is the hope behind this decision?

SPECTOR: The driving force behind the decision is that the over crowding is preventing prisoners from getting adequate medical and mental health services. And so as Clark Kelso just said, the prison has to provide basic healthcare services to prisoners. And it is not doing that today. And the Court found that the reason it's not doing that is because of the over crowding. So the over crowding will improve conditions so that the prison officials can provide the services that they know are necessary and prevent my complaints from dying.

CAVANAUGH: Hasn't healthcare been improving in the state prison system over the last couple of years?

SPECTOR: It has been improving, but independent audits by the state's own inspector general so that medical care is very far from our constitutional situation. Prisoners still don't have timely access to urgently needed care for their chronic and other life threatening conditions.

CAVANAUGH: Now, just to reiterate, the Supreme Court gives California basically two years to accomplish this, to get the prison population down. What does this mean for counties around the State of California?

SPECTOR: Well, it means they're going to have to probably deal with some more offenders. But Lee Baca, the sheriff of LA, who has the most -- the biggest percentage of the prison population, he said he could do it if given the resources from the state. So I credit that, and I credit also all the other local officials who've supported the transfer of prisoners from state prisons to the counties under governor brown's realignment proposal. So I think it can be done and it can be done safely.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Donald, do you think this case has been adequately explained to the people of California or are there scare tactics being used?

SPECTOR: Well, I think some people are using scare tactics. Certainly the decision, the dissent, I would characterize that was just read is using scare tactics. They didn't site to the evidence that was before the trial court. And those tactics are what has resulted in the over crowding in California's prisons to the detriment of the taxpayers as well. You have to understand in the last 20 years, California has built 20 new prisons and only one university campus. And I think that's a sad commentary on our values.

CAVANAUGH: When you were arguing this case before the Supreme Court, did you get any feeling from the -- what the questions, the justices asked? How they might have ruled on this?

SPECTOR: Yeah. The questions from the justices were exactly consistent with the opinion that we got five to four.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So did you -- then you had a pretty good feeling about this?

SPECTOR: Well, I was cautious, very casual optimistic. I didn't -- I wasn't even sure we were going to win as much as we did. But the question -- I was writing -- as they were questioning my opponent. I was writing down questions that were favorable to our side, and I knot to five before I even stood up. So I thought I was in pretty good shape.

CAVANAUGH: Now, my last question to you, Donald, you know, a lot of people characterize this in ways that are scary to people about prisoners being released. Are you going to be marking on any kind of an education campaign? Any kind of a media campaign to let people know what this ruling actually does and why it does it?

SPECTOR: Yes, actually. That's -- we've started that on -- last week. And we will be continuing that in the wake of the decision.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And what types of things are you gonna be do something.

SPECTOR: Well, we're gonna be speak -- you know, presenting the facts and the arguments to various editorial boards, and we've issued various press releases and papers from various organizations who have studied these issues.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when we were talking with Dan Eaton, he talked about two cases, mental health issues for prisoners as well as just general health issues for prisoners. Does this decision cover Beth of those?

SPECTOR: It does, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. So how would you expect to see this develop in, let's say, the next six months?

SPECTOR: Well, the state is gonna have to meet certain benchmarks that were required by the court. Every six months, they're gonna have to report their compliance with the court order, and we expect to see them do that.

CAVANAUGH: All right then. I want thank you. I've been speaking with Donald Spector, he is director of the prison law office who argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Thank you very much, Donald.

SPECTOR: You're welcome.