Earlier this week, a case went to the US Supreme Court that will have tremendous impact on California’s prison system. At issue is a federal court order that requires California to substantially reduce its prison population. If the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the order, California will have to release about 40,000 inmates in the next two years. The lawyer for prisoners in the case, Don Specter of the Prison Law Office, said that if it’s upheld, this case will be groundbreaking: “My hope is that if our case is affirmed it will cause the state’s political leaders, the legislature, the governor, and other influential groups to evaluate how they deal with crime in this state.” Lawyers for the state of California, however, say that prisons have improved, and that releasing that many prisoners in such a short time would compromise public safety. I attended oral arguments at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, where justices pounded lawyers from both sides with questions about what the release order would mean–and made it pretty clear which side of the issue they fall on. But everyone was really watching for what Justice Kennedy would say. On a divided court, Kennedy is the presiding swing vote and will likely decide how this case falls. I sat down with KALW’s Hana Baba yesterday to talk about the case and its possible outcomes. Transcript after the jump.
HANA BABA: So why don’t you give us a brief refresher on what this case is all about?
RINA PALTA: So there are two big cases folded into one here. The first is about two decades old. It deals with mental health conditions in the prison system. The second is eight years old and deals with medical conditions. In both cases, federal judges have decided and found that the situation in the prisons is so bad that inmates have been needlessly dying for lack of care while in custody.
BABA: Actually dying from lack of medical care?
PALTA: That’s right. In California prisons, I think it’s been estimated that about a person a week has been dying from lack of medical care, or preventable suicide. They call those “needless deaths.” So judges have issued a string of orders to try to get the state to improve conditions. Last summer, after years of this, a three-judge panel decided that these problems just wouldn’t go away until California reduced its prison population. So they told the state to cut the prison population down to 137.5% of what the prisons were designed to hold.
BABA: What does that mean exactly, 137.5%? Can you break it down for us?
PALTA: A prison is designed to hold a certain number of people. One hundred percent of that would be full capacity. Right now the whole prison system is at 180% capacity. So these judges are saying that, in order to bring the care to constitutional standards, the population would have to go down to just 137.5% of capacity. But that number … it sounds confusing, and it was confusing to the justices as well. They were really curious about how that number was arrived at. And Justice Kennedy particularly wanted to know why 137.5% of capacity. Because some experts in the trials had testified that 130% capacity was safe. Some experts had testified that 145% of capacity is safe.
BABA: So how did they pick 137.5?
PALTA: Federal law requires that any time you institute a prison release order, where you’re releasing prisoners, you’re telling the state to do so, this has to be narrowly tailored order. So it has to be as small a number as possible, to just get you into minimal compliance with the constitution. So the three-judge panel decided that 137.5% was the right number. It was slightly arbitrary, it seems, and Justice Kennedy was particularly focused on that point … why that number?
BABA: And Justice Kennedy, he’s the likely swing vote in this case, right?
PALTA: Yeah, he’s sort of the presiding swing vote on the court right now. His vote has been the decider on a lot of close cases. And this one looks like it’s going to be close as well. The justices were making their views known during the questioning.
Justice Alito was really leading the charge against releasing inmates. At one point, he brought up the point that citizens of California should be worried about their public safety if more criminals are out on the streets. And he actually went ahead and said that murders would happen if this release order went through. Then you had the more liberal justices like Sotomayor, Ginsberg, and Breyer, on the other hand, clearly thinking that something has to be done to fix the prison system. And they seemed to think the release order that the three-judge court instituted was really making sense.
So it will likely come down to Justice Kennedy for the deciding vote. And he was kind of showing his hand a little bit. At one point, he said something that seemed to indicate he’ll uphold some sort of prison cap. He said that the state has been given a ton of time to try to resolve these constitutional violations and that at some point, enough is enough, and it’s time to fix the system. But he also indicated that the order might change. Like, it might be a smaller number of prisoners who end up getting released. Or he’ll extend the timetable and give the state five years instead of two years to reach that level.
BABA: So you were there at the Supreme Court. What was the crowd like?
PALTA: It was pretty random, actually. Sometimes you hear about big protests or rallies outside the courthouse when there’s an immigration case or a same-sex marriage case, and long lines to get in. This really wasn’t like that, even though it’s a really important case. There were no citizens’ groups or organizers. Just a lot of lawyers, reporters, school groups, tourists.
It was really interesting to hear the audience’s reactions to some of the arguments that were being batted around. Sometimes court arguments can be really boring and really technical and focus on little intricacies of the law. This wasn’t like that. This was a lot of substantive issues floating around. Justices were talking about things like suicides and overflowing sewage pipes. And you could hear the crowd reacting.
At one point a justice asked the attorney for the prisoners what the recidivism rate in California is, and he said 70 percent, and there was this collective gasp in the crowd. You sometimes forget that while these issues with the prison system are very familiar to people who live in California, people around the rest of the country really aren’t aware of the depths of the problems here.
BABA: All right, well we’ll be following. Thank you Rina.
PALTA: Thank you.