Today the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an order from a special panel of three federal judges requiring California to reduce its prison population from about 200 percent of intended capacity to no more than 137 percent. The five-justice majority, in an opinion written by Anthony Kennedy, said the order was appropriate and necessary to address Eighth Amendment violations caused by inadequate medical care. The state had conceded the violations but contested the remedy. The four dissenters—Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts—agreed with the state that the judges, who were convened under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, exceeded their authority. In his dissent, Scalia called the order to reduce overcrowding "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation's history," adding:
The Court disregards stringently drawn provisions of the governing statute, and traditional constitutional limitations upon the power of a federal judge, in order to uphold the absurd. The proceedings that led to this result were a judicial travesty.
Whether you agree with Kennedy or with Scalia, no one disputes that overcrowded prisons are a problem. The July issue of Reason, which will be hitting newsstands and subscribers' mailboxes any day now, features a special package of articles that ask how the U.S. came to imprison such a large share of its population, what the costs and benefits of that incarceration binge have been, and what the alternatives are.
I noted the oral arguments in the California prison case in November.