WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court seemed split on Tuesday in its review of a three-judge court order requiring California to reduce its prison population by between 36,000 and 45,000 prisoners within three years to improve unconstitutional prison conditions.
"I went and looked at the pictures," Justice Stephen Breyer said, referring to online evidence showing overcrowding and inadequate medical and mental health care facilities, "and the pictures are pretty horrendous...What is the answer to that?"
The attorney for California, Carter Phillips, said the state needs a reasonable time to correct the conditions, and said it was doing so in appointing a receiver to oversee improving prison conditions.
In August 2009, a three-judge panel issued a prison release order requiring California, which has the biggest prison system in the country, to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of its design capacity within three years.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that one of the class actions in the case, Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, has been pending for 20 years. "So how much longer do we have to wait?" she asked. "Another 20 years?"
Phillips argued that the receiver should have the opportunity to implement his plan, which included constructing new facilities and hiring additional staff. Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked what he had in mind since construction funds were denied by California lawmakers due to the state's budget shortfalls and the state could not hire additional staff without additional facilities.
"I don't see how you wait for an option that doesn't exist," Sotomayor said. "Give me concrete steps."
"[Y]ou can't provide construction when the state doesn't supply the money for it," Ginsburg said.
Phillips argued that since August 2008 the state had poured hundreds of millions into prison construction and spent $4 billion on prison health care.
Sotomayor asked if the state could reduce the prison population density to levels that would prevent constitutional violations within five years if they could not do it in two.
Phillips said it could, as long as it was in the best interest of California. "Well, the best interest of the state of California, isn't it to deliver adequate constitutional care to the people that it incarcerates?" Sotomayor asked. "That's a constitutional obligation." Phillips agreed.
"So when are you going to get to that? When are you going to avoid the needless deaths that were reported in this record? When are you going to avoid or get around people sitting in their feces for days in a dazed state?"
Phillips argued that the situation has improved since the record was cut off in August 2008, saying the state prison population was currently down from around 165,000 prisoners to 147,000.
Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that, at some point, the court has to cut off the record and remedy the constitutional violation, calling the district court's order "perfectly reasonable."
Phillips said appointing a receiver was the remedy, and pushed against Justice Elena Kagan's attempt to come up with a specific time frame.
"We believe that we are entitled to a reasonable opportunity to comply with the receiver's orders and to bring ourselves ultimately into compliance with the Constitution," Phillips said.
Justice Samuel Alito voiced his concern that releasing tens of thousands prisoners was an indirect way of addressing the problem and would create a public safety concern, advocating for ordering construction and hiring additional staff.
"If I were a citizen of California, I would be concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners," Alito said. "[I]t seems likely this is going to have an effect on public safety."
Attorney for the prisoners, Donald Specter, cited expert examples of ways to reduce overcrowding without endangering public safety.
"And the experts can testify to whatever they want, but you know what? If this order goes into effect, we will see. We will see, and the people of California will see. Are there more crimes or are there not?" Alito said.
The case is Schwarzenegger v. Plata, no. 09-1233.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.