Supreme Court rules California must alleviate overcrowding in prisons

A locked cellblock inside the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

Kai Ryssdal: Design capacity for the California state prison system is just about 80,000 people. The actual population among the incarcerated is well beyond that, almost double at one point -- has been for years now. Today, the United States Supreme Court said enough is enough.

In 5-4 ruling this morning, the justices said prison overcrowding here is a "serious constitutional violation." It told the state to reduce its prison population by about tens of thousands of prisoners, in a case that was originally about inadequate medical care for those behind bars.

Sam Stanton covers California prisons for the Sacramento Bee. Good to have you with us.

Sam Stanton: Thank you.

Ryssdal: Give us a sense of what this phrase "serious constitutional violation" means in terms of prisoner overcrowding.

Stanton: Well, the Supreme Court decided that the situation inside California's prisons was essentially medieval. The opinion recounts instances of inmates dying and not being found for hours in crowded gymnasiums, of inmates being stacked in cages. In one instance they recounted, there were 54 inmates using one toilet. And the Court said that enough was enough, and they've either got to increase capacity or release thousands of inmates. And the odds of increasing capacity in this state, obviously, are non-existent, given the budget crisis.

Ryssdal: This is one of those cases that took 20-something years to get to the Supreme Court; along the way, a lot of other states joined in and watching this very closely -- 18 other states are worried about this. Explain that a little bit and talk about how this applies nationally.

Stanton: There, as you say, 18 states that joined in and argued California's point. They're all worried that this will be precedent-setting and that this will result in them facing pressure to release inmates. And anytime you start talking about releasing inmates, there's a huge outcry from the public about public safety. Justice Scalia noted that releasing 46,000 inmates is the equivalent of three army divisions.

Ryssdal: You mention the budget crisis that we're having out here in California. So the question becomes: what can Governor Brown and the Department of Corrections do to relieve the overcrowding?

Stanton: Governor Brown's new plan is that they will take up to 30,000 inmates from the prisons and turn them over to the county jails. But they haven't figured out how to pay for that.

Ryssdal: What about sending prisoners out of state? Governor Schwarzenegger did that; he sent folks to private prisons out of state, didn't he?

Stanton: You're right, that's an option. There are 10,000 inmates out of state right now in various prisons that California has sent. And the Court said they could continue to do that to reduce their populations; they can send them out of state, they could send them to county jails, they could release them, they have all these different options -- or they could build new prisons.

Ryssdal: For all the money that the state of California and states all over this country spend on prisons and incarceration, is there a way to spend more money and make this problem, within the bounds of resources, be taken care of?

Stanton: I don't know; I don't know how you'd do it short of building more prisons or putting a halt to laws that mandate sending you away. The critics complain that the three strikes law, particularly the two-strike reserves, filling up the prisons. And at the same time, because of the budget crisis, they have cut numerous services inside prisons: social services, teaching. A lot of the people who were coming into the prisons and working with inmates no longer have those jobs, so they've got the inmates themselves being trained to perform those services.

Ryssdal: Yeah, there is something of a Gordian knot here, right? Because the services are being cut because of budget cuts, and yet we can't alleviate overcrowding because of budget cuts.

Stanton: It all comes down to the budget, right. You have to expect some movement from Governor Brown's people to try and turn this to their favor in getting the tax extensions that they've been looking for.

Ryssdal: That's the tax extensions the governor wants to take care of the budget crisis we're having out here.

Stanton: Right. The wall of debt.

Ryssdal: Sam Stanton from the Sacramento Bee, on today's Supreme Court ruling on prisoners here in California. Sam, thanks a lot.

Stanton: Thank you.

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