Supreme Court declines to halt order to reduce CA’s prison population pending appeal

The Supreme Court has rejected California’s request to stop reducing its prison population pending an appeal.

“While California’s stay request was denied today, the state will pursue its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court so that the merits of the case can be considered without delay,” said Jeffrey Beard, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

The request for a stay on the court-mandated population benchmark was submitted to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who did not issue an explanation for denying California’s request.

In May 2011, the Supreme Court upheld a federal court order mandating California to reduce its inmate population to 137.5% of prison design capacity, which would entail releasing 46,000 prisoners.

The population reduction order was issued by a three-judge panel in response to two class action lawsuits – Plata v. Brown and Coleman v. Brown – claiming that inmates were routinely denied necessary medical and mental health care due to the state’s chronic and severe prison overcrowding.

The court found – and the Supreme Court reaffirmed – that denial of care violated the prisoners’ constitutional rights and that the prison population reduction was the appropriate cure for the constitutional violations.

As of Aug. 1, the state’s prison population is at 146.3% of design capacity, about 8.8% short of the 137.5% design capacity benchmark.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision, California has made some efforts to reduce the number of inmates held in state prisons – chiefly, through the public safety realignment.

The realignment shifted the incarceration and oversight responsibilities of non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual offenders to county jails and local law enforcement, thereby allowing the state prison system to focus on incarcerating the most serious and violent offenders.

State officials also have claimed that improvements to the prison mental health and medical care systems mean that inmates are now receiving the constitutional level of care and, thus, further population reduction is not necessary.

In April, a federal judge denied California’s request to lift federal oversight of the state prison mental health system, citing “ongoing constitutional violations”.

Months later, the three-judge panel ordered California to expand “good time” credits to inmates to meet the 137.5% prison population benchmark.

Citing the potential danger to public safety, Gov. Jerry Brown said he would appeal the federal court’s prison population reduction order once again to the U.S. Supreme Court and would ask the high court to allow the state to stop releasing prisoners while the case is being reviewed. Brown’s administration claimed that prisoners who would be released now are serious offenders with high recidivism rates and who would pose a greater threat to public safety.

Although Kennedy denied Brown’s request for a stay on the inmate reductions without explanation, Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Clarence Thomas, wrote in support of California’s appeal in his dissent. Scalia wrote that Brown’s administration “provided evidence that it has made meaningful progress and that population reductions to the level required by the injunction are unnecessary.”

The 137.5% benchmark, Scalia wrote, “goes beyond what the Prison Litigation Reform Act allows, and beyond the power of the courts.”


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3 Comments on “Supreme Court declines to halt order to reduce CA’s prison population pending appeal

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