More than 30,000 prisoners could be freed from California’s jails after the US Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding levels were inhumane.
In a 5-4 majority decision, the court yesterday gave California two years to reduce its jail population by 23 per cent.
Speaking for the majority, judge Anthony Kennedy, a California native, said the care provided to 143,000 prisoners by the largest US state fell below the standard of decency under the eighth amendment of the US constitution, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.
Justice Kennedy related terrible stories of suicidal prisoners kept in “telephone booth-sized cages without toilets” and others with cancer, or severe pain, dying before they were allowed to see a doctor.
Among “appalling” conditions, he described how 200 prisoners were forced to live in a gymnasium and up to 54 inmates shared a single toilet.
California’s Governor Jerry Brown expressed his hope yesterday that the state could comply with the court order to reduce overcrowding, without throwing criminals on to the streets, by shifting low-level offenders to county jails.
But Mr Brown warned that he would need to raise taxes to cover hundreds of millions of dollars in added costs for jail transfers, and could need more time.
California has suffered a chronic overcrowded prison population, prompting former Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to shift inmates to jails interstate and seek early release for low-risk offenders.
Mr Schwarzenegger and Mr Brown, who was attorney-general before taking over this year as Democrat Governor, had jointly resisted the decisions of lower courts to tell them how to manage the state’s prisons.
But Justice Kennedy, in the majority ruling by the highest US court, found California’s prison system provided a “grossly inadequate” medical and mental healthcare by holding almost double its designed capacity.
Often a circuit-breaker for court rulings in split decisions, Justice Kennedy was joined by liberal-leaning judges Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The majority ruling prompted an extraordinary outburst from dissenting conservative judge Antonin Scalia, who accused his colleagues of “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history”.
In a sign of testy relations on the highly polarised bench, Justice Scalia said: “Terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order.”
Another dissenting conservative judge, Samuel Alito, accused his colleagues of gambling with the safety of people in California by potentially allowing dangerous criminals to go free.
“I fear that today’s decision will lead to a grim roster of victims,” he said. “I hope that I am wrong. In a few years we will see.”
Justices Scalia and Alito were joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and judge Clarence Thomas.
– Article from The Australian.