(CN) - In a decision that Justice Antonin Scalia says was borne from "a judicial travesty," a majority of Supreme Court justices on Monday backed an order to reduce California prisons by up to 46,000 inmates, responding to ongoing constitutional violations that only get worse as facilities become more overcrowded.
Writing for the five-member majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that he and his colleagues did not take the matter lightly.
"The release of prisoners in large numbers - assuming the State finds no other way to comply with the order-is a matter of undoubted, grave concern," Kennedy wrote, adding that the population reduction, no matter how California seeks to carry it out, "is nevertheless of unprecedented sweep and extent."
"Yet so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations," the 47-page lead opinion states. "For years the medical and mental health care provided by California's prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners' basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California's prison system. Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.
"Overcrowding has overtaken the limited resources of prison staff; imposed demands well beyond the capacity of medical and mental health facilities; and created unsanitary and unsafe conditions that make progress in the provision of care difficult or impossible to achieve," Kennedy continued.
The court's involvement in this issue stems from two federal class actions. In Coleman v. Brown, which was filed in 1990, a class of seriously mentally ill California prisoners sued over inadequate care. Plata v. Brown, a 2001 lawsuit, involves a class of state prisoners with serious medical conditions.
Both cases were decided for the plaintiff classes, and the courts ordered California to remedy the ongoing and deteriorating conditions.
By 2006, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prisons.
As conditions worsened still, the Coleman and Plata plaintiffs each requested the District Court to convene a three-judge panel empowered to order reductions in the prison population.
The court agreed to set up the special panel and consolidated both cases for a single hearing. Chief Judge of the 9th Circuit Alex Kozinski selected two federal judges for the panel joined by one final judge from the federal appeals court.
Schwarzenegger's report had noted that prison overcrowding led to the "increased, substantial risk for transmission of infectious illness" and one prisoner suicide a week, according to the Supreme Court.
"The degree of overcrowding in California's prisons is exceptional," Kennedy wrote. "California's prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but at the time of the three-judge court's decision the population was almost double that. The State's prisons had operated at around 200% of design capacity for at least 11 years. Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers. As many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet."
After 14 days of testimony, the panel released a 184-page opinion in February 2009, ordering California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent capacity within two years. Without new construction, California would have to reduce the prison populations by 38,000 to 46,000 people. The details of such compliance would be left to the state, which must submit a plan for court approval.
"But absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfers, or other means - or modification of the order upon a further showing by the State - the State will be required to release some number of prisoners before their full sentences have been served," Kennedy wrote. "High recidivism rates must serve as a warning that mistaken or premature release of even one prisoner can cause injury and harm."
California appealed, arguing that the panel was convened prematurely and that the substance of order was improper. The high court took up the case in June 2010.
A majority of the court's justices affirmed the order on Monday, finding that the panel had authority and that its decision was appropriate.
During the pendency of the appeal, California reduced its prison population by about 9,000 people, but the majority notes that it may have to remove up to 37,000 more.
"As will be noted, the reduction need not be accomplished in an indiscriminate manner or in these substantial numbers if satisfactory, alternate remedies or means for compliance are devised," Kennedy wrote. "The State may employ measures, including good-time credits and diversion of low-risk offenders and technical parole violators to community-based programs, that will mitigate the order's impact."
Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito each authored dissenting opinions. Justice Clarence Thomas joined in Scalia's opinion, and Chief Justice John Roberts joined with Alito.
Scalia said that the decision resulted from proceedings he described as "a judicial travesty."
"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," Scalia wrote. "Today, quite to the contrary, the Court disregards stringently drawn provisions of the governing statute, and traditional constitutional limitations upon the power of a federal judge, in order to uphold the absurd."
Alito said that the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 was enacted precisely to prevent this type of decision.
"The Constitution does not give federal judges the authority to run state penal systems," Alito wrote.
"Federal courts have the responsibility to ensure that this constitutional standard is met, but undesirable prison conditions that do not violate the Constitution are beyond the federal courts' reach," he added.
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