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Monday, May 30, 2011

SCOTUS Orders the Release of More than 45k California Felons

Photo Credit: LA Times
In a hotly contested 5-4 plurality decision that will surely go down as one of the more controversial cases of this decade, SCOTUS affirmed the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in ordering the release of more than 45,000 California felons.  The decision will precipitate the largest release of prisoners in American history.

Brown v Plata began it's marathon crawl through the federal court system in 1990, when a case was filed challenging the poor status of mental health treatment in the California prisons.  Then in 2001, a companion case challenging the medical care of prisoners was initiated.

These consolidated cases have everything, from a procedural standpoint.  For example, a "special master" first was appointed by the federal court to make findings about the prison conditions.  The State of California stipulated to violations of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and agreed to remedy the problem by reducing overcrowding in the prisons.  Next, when remedial measures fell short, or did not occur, the court appointed a receiver to oversee the California Department of Corrections.

The cases were even assigned to a special three-judge panel to oversee the CDC's progress; or lack thereof.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority's opinion, finding that prison conditions had gone too far for too long.  The opinion provides a few slices of life in the CDC like sharing a toilet with 55 of your good buddies, or doing your entire four-year bit in a sweaty gymnasium. 

The always-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia opined that the majority's decision was "absurd", noting that SCOTUS routinely overruled 9th Circuit decisions that called for the release of individual prisoners.  Justice Scalia sees grave problems that will come home to roost from the Plata ruling.

In a separate dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the majority's decision conflicts with a federal law which prohibits judges from releasing prisoners.

The one thing SCOTUS gave the State of California was time.  California has busied itself with transferring thousands of state prisoners to county jails across the state.  This will not amelioriate the entire problem, however, and some of California's "happy-go-lucky" [Scalia's characterization] felons will wind up on the streets.

This High Court decision brings into focus the inherent tension between our individual freedoms and enforcement of the laws.  There is a constant tension between the two concepts.  Sometimes, that tension cycles to the breaking point like in California, where too many law breakers are stuffed into concrete boxes that are ready to explode.

In Michigan, although we are far behind California in maxing-out our prison capacity, we have an awful lot of population encased in concrete and barbed wire.  In fact, we have the opposite problem.  Due to budget cuts, we have at least one brand new facility, in Lake County, sitting empty due to lack of funding.

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