Supreme Court Reviews Order to Free California Prisoners

Today the Supreme Court heard arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Plata, California's challenge to a federal court order requiring it to reduce its prison population. The order, in response to complaints that the medical care offered by California's prisons is so abysmal that it violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, demands that the state reduce overcrowding from more than 200 percent of designed capacity to 137.5 percent within two years. Such a cut would require the release of 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners. Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the Drug Policy Alliance notes that California could meet a large fraction of that goal simply by releasing the 10,000 people who are serving time for drug possession.

The Supreme Court has to decide whether the court order violates the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which says remedies for unconstitutional conditions must be closely tied to the specific facts of the case. The three-judge panel that issued the order concluded that medical care in California's prisons cannot be improved enough to satisfy the Eighth Amendment  as long as overcrowding persists. Not surprisingly, that argument was treated skeptically by the more conservative members of the court, who suggested that ordering the release of prisoners unjustifiably infringed on state authority and endangered the public:

"If I were a citizen of California, I would be concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners," Justice Samuel Alito stated.

Alito further pressed attorney Donald Specter, of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, to acknowledge that the overall recidivism rate for California prisoners currently released on parole is 70 percent.

"Seven, zero," Justice Antonin Scalia reiterated, driving the point home.

But if much of the recidivism involves drug possession, as opposed to robbery, rape, or murder, the public safety threat is less dramatic than Alito and Scalia imply. The first step toward alleviating overcrowding in prisons is to free people who don't belong there—and stop locking them up.

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  • Mango Punch||

  • Almanian||

    ...oh boy, here we go

  • Bingo||

    He's threatening the authority of several nations, no wonder they are so pissed.

  • l0b0t||

    Funny this is just being talked about now. Assange himself was on NPR last week, talking about the charge and his upcoming trip to Sweden to surrender to Swedish authorities.

  • Almanian||

    C. I. L. L. my landlord.

    "If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be in prison."

  • BakedPenguin||

    "Creep to his bed, break his neck
    Got no reason, what the heck."

  • ||

    I'm sure the prison guard union in CA is thrilled about this.

  • Hobie Hanson||

    Or we could just build more prisons. That would have the added benefit of creating more jobs, unlike releasing criminals, which only creates more jobs for security guards and funeral home directors.

  • ||

    With all the money sitting around in state coffers, I can't understand why we don't do this. After all, those prison guards don't make a lot of money, and hey, as Hobie says, IT'S JOBS!!!11!!eleven

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Or you could stop arresting and prosecuting people who haven't committed crimes against someone else.

  • JoshINHB||

    Or we could just build more prisons. That would have the added benefit of creating more jobs...

    Toward the socialist utopia where 30% of the population imprisons and guards the other 70%.

  • ||

    We're not there already?

  • Steve||

    The prisons wouldn't be so darn full if every year, more and more of life wasn't legislated.

    The 8th Amendment arguments seem weak, but the non-violent drug offender release sounds like a good idea anyway.

  • ||

    I think I'm ok with the 8A argument. If you want to lock people up you have to do it under certaint condintions. If you are unwilling to meet those conditions, then you can't lock them up.

  • Steve||

    What's the standard? A basic level of competent care (expecting ALOT coming from the government, I know) seems reasonable. If they require more intense care, then they probably shouldn't be in a standard prison anyway.

  • ||

    I think that's the argument here, is that the quality of care is so poor that it doesn't meat constitutional muster.

    I haven't actually been in a CA prison so I can't comment, but it woudn't suprise me at all if that was true.

  • DRM||

    It would shock the hell out of me if the medical care was inferior to that available in 1791.

  • ||

    Surely you're not making that argument. If that was the case then then 1A woudn't apply to the internet or TV,
    2A woudn't apply to anything but muzzleloaders etc

    crual and unusual applies to the standards of our time.

  • ||

    If you brought a Glock back to 1791, they would agree it was a firearm.

    Likewise, if you brought a television transmitter and a bunch of TVs back to 1791 and demonstrated how it works, they would agree it was a form of press and speech. (The freedom of the press was believed at the time to apply to handwritten leaflets too, so it's nothing special about printing presses)

    If you brought back 21st century medical technology and pharmaceuticals to 1789, and asked them whether having to wait in line for treatment with this stuff was cruel and unusual, they'd say hell no.

    That's the difference.

  • robc||

    If you brought a pot smoker back to 1791, they would wonder why the hell he was in jail.

  • ||

    They'd be surprised that you could smoke it instead of making useful stuff out of it.

  • ||

    They'd say you could carry what the average soldier needed. (M-16, FN-FAL, something like that, kind of like Switzerland)

  • DRM||

    The the two types of extension you propose belong to completely different categories.

    In the examples of the Internet, TV, and modern weapons, the question is how the standards of 1791 apply to objects that did not exist in 1791.

    In the example of the cruel and unusual punishment, however, you are trying to declare the standards of 2010 were somehow enacted in 1791.

    Now, obviously, the actual medical care provided to the prisoners should not be limited to the 1791 technology; but the degree of access to state-of-the-art medical care (whatever it is) can properly be limited to the same level it was in 1791. And I would be, as I said, shocked if the access to medical care really were inferior to that available to prisoners in 1791.

  • ||

    Crual and unusual applies to the standard of the time.

    Thus flogging, no longer ok. etc

  • DRM||

    Nope. The only standards that could possibly be enacted were the standards of 1791, so flogging is perfectly legal. Once you get into g standards changing over time for the 8th, you let anything else in the Constitution be redefined by evolving standards. Which is to say, you render the Constitution to mean nothing more than whatever a court decides it should be.

    The court decides that evolving standards mean actual, literal torture of child molesters isn't cruel and unusual? Then it isn't. The court decides "the cop thinks you look like a crook and thus rips through your house", under evolving standards, is a reasonable search? Then it is. The court decides detaining you for twenty years without trial is, under evolving standards, speedy? Hey, it is!

    Evolving standards is the gateway of tyranny.

  • ||

    I guarantee they're getting much better medical care than the richest, most powerful man on earth was getting when the 8th Amendment was ratified.

    It's a weak argument.

  • DRM||

    Yes, under the 8th Amendment you have to do it under certain conditions, which is to say, conditions that were not cruel and unusual in 1791.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Bullshit.

    You law and order conservatives need to lick a taint.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Piercing argument there.

    The 8A argument does seem weak for medical terms, but the overcrowding part of 8A argument seems more legit.

  • DRM||

    I'll repeat that to the next law-and-order conservative I see.

  • ||

    ""If I were a citizen of California, I would be concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners," Justice Samuel Alito stated."

    But not concerned enough to pay for the new prisons of course.

  • Bingo||

    I don't think California can afford to pay for much more at this point.

  • ||

    then I guess the choice should be easy.

  • ||

    OTOH, has someone pointed out to Justice Alito that there are presently 60,000+ armed and dangerous police officers presently on the loose in California?

  • ||

    Supreme Court Reviews Order to Free California Prisoners

    You have ordered:

    16 rapists - FREE
    7 murderers - FREE
    8 embezzlers - FREE
    75 prostitutes - FREE
    33 drug dealers - FREE

    Your total today is: FREE

    Is this order correct?

  • BakedPenguin||

    How about releasing the drug "dealers", prostitutes, pimps (all not implicated in otherwise violent crimes), and business owners who fell afoul of CA regs, and see where that gets you.

  • Wind Rider||

    Hey, who isn't for free hookers?

  • ||

    Hey, who isn't for free hookers?

    Look, I can enjoy a $5 whore, but a $3 whore is just too low class to be acceptable. Naturally, free whores are RIGHT out.

  • ||

    Tell that to your "significant other". (M/F, your choice.

  • ||

    Look, you don't wanna enjoy a paraphrased Futurama reference, that's fine by me. I just don't see why you gotta bring my hand into this.

  • Progressive Guy||

    "business owners who fell afoul of CA regs"

    Ah, so your true aims in underfunding the prison system finally become clear. Sure, just slip those guys in there with the druggies and hookers and cop killers and other sympathetic criminals. And you wonder why people call libertarians corporate whores.

  • Jeffersonian||

    Read Robert Bidinotto's research on the people actually in prison. It blows your lil theories away. I agree drugs should be legalized but let's not fantasize that crime would disappear and prisons would be empty if they were.

  • ||

    You know what else contributes to prison overcrowding? Underutilization of capital punishment.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Which is evened out by all those who never had the opportunity to make it to prison because THEY WERE FUCKING SLAUGHTERED BY THE POLICE.

    Go suck a dick you authoritarian fuck.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Again, piercing argument.

    I like the death penalty in principle, but I don't trust the US government right now to be competent enough to use this tool. It should be moratoriumed until US governments are good enough to use it.

  • ||

    It should be moratoriumed until US governments are good enough to use it.

    So, basically no death penalty until mankind has evolved into pure energy beings and crime becomes a thing of the past anyway?

  • ||

    If they're not competent to use the death penalty, they're not competent to use life imprisonment.

  • ||

    Except for the part where life imprisonment tends to leave plenty of time to reverse the conviction. Which allows mistakes to be corrected, admittedly, in a non-perfect way.

    For fun, Tulpa, I'll just agree that since we can't execute murderers we should just let them off with a fine and a strong admonishment. That's some mighty fine false equivalency there, Lou.

  • ||

    Except for the part where life imprisonment tends to leave plenty of time to reverse the conviction.

    Very, very few life imprisonment convictions are reversed after a few years (when a death row inmate would also still be in the appeals process). In fact, the extravagant system of appeals open only to those with death sentences means their convictions are more likely to be reversed than those with life sentences, all else being equal.

  • Les||

    I guess it's opening a huge can of worms, but it takes a leftist's faith to trust the government to do that job and do it well.

    How many executions of innocent people are acceptable?

  • JoshINHB||

    How many executions of innocent people are acceptable?

    About 15,000 a year for liberals.

  • ||

    How many life imprisonments of innocent people are acceptable?

    Once you support giving the justice system the power to coercively punish those it deems to have committed crimes, you've already demonstrated faith in its ability to do so justly. Spending years 20-60 in prison destroys one's life just as much as the death penalty does.

  • ||

    Spending years 20-60 in prison destroys one's life just as much as the death penalty does.

    Except for the part where they're still alive, yes, it's just like execution.

  • ||

    I didn't say it was just like execution.

  • Les||

    So, the guys who spent 25 and 30 years in prison and were released thanks to DNA evidence are in just as bad a shape as the guys we kill?

    Are you really making this argument?

  • ||

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  • ||

    I do support the death penalty for spambots.

    Burning at the stake, disembowlement, crucifixion and impalement all seem far to merciful, however.

  • Alan||

    IIRC, a fellow on NPR noted that if California simply released those prisoners who had been returned to prison for technical parole violations (things like missing an appointment), that would reduce the number of prisoners by about 17,000 all by itself.

  • ||

    I think this initiative has two major advantages: a community in which it consolidated and strengthened and refined character of the men who took part in it. I hope these initiatives will be increasingly more, and separate communities and people will understand that they must work together. Just so the results will not delay to appear.
    rca ieftin

  • ||

    The opposition to releasing the prisoners seems to rest on the assumption that we don't need to remedy violations of the Bill of Rights if doing so is just too hard, dammit.

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