- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case about prison overcrowding in California that pitted public safety worries against the constitutional rights of the state’s inmates.

Along with those two competing interests, the case also hinged largely on how much time the state should have to solve problems that have plagued its prison system for decades.

California is appealing to the high court a 2009 order from a lower court that the state reduce its prison population within two years. The lower court said overcrowding is the primary cause of prison conditions that violate constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

Carter G. Phillips, a Washington lawyer representing the state, called the order “extraordinarily premature.” He told the justices the order does not give the state enough time to complete ongoing measures that will reduce inmate population without a mass release of prisoners.

“The reality is that anytime you say you are going to release 30,000 inmates in a very compressed period of time, I guarantee you that there is going to be more crime and people are going to die on the streets of California,” Mr. Phillips said. “There is no way out of that particular box.”

The four justices comprising the court’s liberal wing - Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor - seemed skeptical.

“One case, Mr. Phillips, is pending for 20 years; is it not?” Justice Ginsburg said. “So how much longer do we have to wait? Another 20 years?”

Justice Breyer called the conditions “horrendous.”

Mr. Phillips was not specific about how much time the state needed, but said in response to questioning from the justices that five years could be enough.

Donald Specter, a lawyer for the inmates, argued the state has already been given enough time.

“The constitutional violations have been ongoing for 20 years,” Mr. Specter said. “We are dealing here with cases of life and death and serious injury.”

The lower court said prison overcrowding led to inmates being denied their constitutional rights to adequate medical and mental health care. According to court documents, about one inmate dies every eight days because of a lack of basic medical care. At the time of the ruling, California had 165,000 inmates, the most of any state, and its 33 prisons were at roughly twice their designed capacity. The lower court ordered the state to reduce its inmate population to 137.5 percent of design capacity - a reduction of as many as 46,000 inmates.

Mr. Phillips argued that the inmate population has already been reduced to 147,000. The system was designed to hold 80,000 prisoners.

Mr. Phillips said the reduction came from increases in “good time” credits for some inmates; Mr. Specter said most of the reduction is from transferring inmates to prisons in other states.

Since the lower court’s order, according to Mr. Phillips, more than $4 billion has been spent on prison health care and another nearly $2.4 billion will be spent on building new facilities.

Several justices, such as Justice Ginsburg, noted the $2.4 billion is well short of the $8 billion a private receiver overseeing the prison systems mental health system said is necessary for adequate facilities. Conservative justices, led by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., expressed worry that the lower court’s order would result in a massive release of potentially dangerous inmates.

“If I were a citizen of California,” Justice Alito said. “I would be concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners.”

Justice Breyer pointed to suggestions including releasing elderly or infirm inmates and transferring appropriate prisoners to halfway houses as other safe methods to reduce the population.

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