Prison Overcrowding Case to Get Extended Argument at SCOTUS
This week, the Supreme Court will hear extended oral argument (80-minutes) in the case of Schwarzenegger v Plata. You may recall that the governor of our largest state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, declared in 2006 that acute prison overcrowding had reached a crisis stage, "that gets worse with each passing day."
In California, there are approximately 160,000 men and women behind bars. The prisons in that state are operating at 195% capacity meaning that two inmates occupy a space designed for one.
If petitioners are successful, a favorable ruling from the SCOTUS could release up to 40,000 inmates in California alone.
So far, the Prison Law Offices in Berkley, a non-profit organization specializing in prisoners' rights cases, sucessfully petitioned for convening a special three-judge District Court panel to assess the prisoners' claim under the Prisoner Litigation Relief Act. Once convened, the prisoners' lawyers next convinced that panel to find that all conditions for a prisoner release order had been met.
The three-judge panel (not an appellate court, mind you) then ruled that the prison population must be reduced (significantly) over a two-year period. This order, along with some complex jurisdictional issues, will be argued at SCOTUS this week.
One of the core issues is whether the admittedly overcrowded conditions in the California prisons affect the inmates' constitutional rights. This approach is distinct from your basic habeas corpus petition and could result in a landmark prisoners' rights case.
Among several other arguments, California asserts that it is simply not equipped to cut loose tens of thousands of convicted felons into its collapsing economy. It does appear there is no good solution to this knotty problem.
Our laws become meaningless unless enforced. Violent offenders must be punished to deter other violent crimes. At what point, however, do we become a nation behind bars?
Michigan Connection: Attorney General Mike Cox has joined several other states in filing an amicus brief in favor of rescinding the prisoner release order.