A last minute effort by the California state officials to avoid, even temporarily, submitting a release plan for approximately 46,000 prisoners by September 18th was rebuffed by the United States Supreme Court. In asking the Supreme Court to intervene, state officials argued that developing a plan by the September 18th deadline would take attention away from other pressing state business at a time when the state’s resources and personnel are limited due to the state’s historic budget crisis. Furthermore, the state argued, the release of so many prisoners would create an immediate public safety threat to California at a time when the state is simply unequipped to handle any upsurge in criminal activity.
The case involves an August 4th ruling of a three-judge U.S. District Court panel. The panel found that serious overcrowding in the state’s prison system had risen to the level of threatening the health and safety of those working at the facilities, as well as the prisoners housed there and issued a prisoner release order. The ruling is based on an interpretation of the 1996 federal Prison Litigation Reform Act. Under the Act, before a prisoner release order can be issued a court must find that overcrowding was the “primary cause” of unconstitutional conditions. According to the District Court, the overcrowding is the direct cause of the prison’s system failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners and can only be remedied by immediate release of prisoners.
The case originated as two separate prisoner challenges to medical or mental health care. One of the two cases has been pending in court for 19 years, and the other for eight. Throughout the history of those cases the court has issued a series of remedial orders, but none have done the trick. In issuing the prisoner release order the District Court said that the “outlook for California’s prisons has only grown dimmer.”
That does not mean that nearly 50,000 prisoners will be released by the end of September, though. The original order from the District Court indicates that a final order will not be implemented until the United States Supreme Court has had the opportunity to review the decree. That means simply that California needs to come up with a plan, but that actual implementation of that plan will wait until the Supreme Court has had an opportunity to review it.
That said, it is becoming clear that the state doesn’t have even the outline of a plan in place in order to comply with the District Court. What is not at all clear is what happens if the state fails to meet that September 18th deadline. Presumably the prisoners will bring a motion demanding the state show the cause of its inability to comply, or the state will submit a patently insufficient plan knowing it will be rejected by the District Court and Supreme Court.
Either way prison reform advocates wonder if the state is even participating in this process in good faith. Much like the current foot-dragging with health insurance reform, the longer California officials delay implementation of the District Court Order, the more danger staff and prisoners face. The conditions at these facilities are inhumane and California has been ordered to clean them up. Now it’s time to act.
photo courtesy of amandabhslater via Flickr