CA’s Inmate Reduction Plan Draws Scalia Out

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Justice Antonin Scalia complained again about the expansion of “the Power of the Black Robe” when it comes to the Supreme Court’s intervention in overcrowded California prisons.
     The battle over California prison overcrowding has spanned five governors and 23 years since prisoners Ralph Coleman and Marciano Plata charged that cramped conditions degraded medical and mental health care. Coleman filed a federal class action in 1990 on behalf of seriously mentally ill inmates, while Plata filed his 2001 action to improve conditions for prisoners with serious medical conditions.
     A three-judge panel for California’s Eastern and Northern Districts first ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity in 2009, but left state officials to come up with a specific plan. California appealed the order, arguing that the panel was convened prematurely and that the substance of the order was improper.
     A five-justice majority of the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the order in 2011.
     California noted more recently that it had reduced its inmate population by more than 46,000 since 2006. The 2011 Prison Realignment Act, which sentences nonviolent, nonserious felons to county jails rather than state prison, accounts for more than half of that number.
     The District Courts panel refused to modify its order, however, and California had submitted an inmate reduction plan in May 2013.
     Noting that the population remained 9,400 over the capacity mandate, however, the panel shot the plan down as inadequate in June. It set a Dec. 31 deadline to comply and offered its own suggestions to relieve overcrowding.
     Faced with an order to release 10,000 prisoners by the end of 2013 or face contempt charges, Gov. Jerry Brown petitioned the high court for a stay.
     The justices declined Friday, much to the chagrin of Scalia, who back in 2011 had decried the entire proceedings as “a judicial travesty.”
     Justice Clarence Thomas joined that dissent and one that Scalia penned Friday.
     It notes the majority had been bluffing in 2011 when it purported to give California an opportunity to modify the injunction.
     “The state, seeking to invoke the ex ante appellate control of district-court discretion, and to compel the modification decreed by the Court’s raised eyebrow, provided evidence that it has made meaningful progress and that population reductions to the level re­quired by the injunction are unnecessary,” Scalia wrote. “But the latter argument was made and rejected in the last round, and the former hardly requires (demands) modification of the injunction. It was predictable two terms ago that the state would make progress – indeed, it promised to do so. If the reality of incremental progress makes the injunction now invalid, the probability (indeed, one might say the certainty) of incremental progress made the injunction an overreach two terms ago. Surely it is not the case that when a party subject to an injunction makes substantial progress toward compliance it is an abuse of discretion not to revise the injunction.” (Emphasis and parentheses in original.)
     Now, California must “release upon the public nearly 10,000 inmates convicted of serious crimes – about 1,000 for every city larger than Santa Ana – three-quarters of whom are moderate (57%) or high (74%) recidivism risks,” Scalia added.
     “It appears to have become a standard ploy, when this court vastly expands the Power of the Black Robe, to hint at limitations that make it seem not so bad,” he continued. “Comes the moment of truth, the hinted-at limitation proves a sham. As for me, I adhere to my original view of this terrible injunction. It goes beyond what the Prison Litiga­tion Reform Act allows, and beyond the power of the courts. I would grant the stay and dissolve the injunction.”

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