Posted Sunday, November 28th
Argument preview: Crowded prisons, inmates’ rights
The Court on Tuesday will hold an extended hearing — 80 minutes long — on the power of federal courts to take steps to relieve overcrowding of the nation’s prisons and jails, including the outright release of inmates.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday confronts its most significant prisoners’ rights case in years — a case that has grown so complicated that the Justices have expanded the oral argument time by a third, to 80 minutes. The Court must get past two preliminary obstacles before it could rule directly on a remedy for prison overcrowding, in the case of Schwarzenegger, et al., v. Plata, et al. (09-1233),.
Arguing for the state of California at the 11 a.m. hearing will be Carter G. Phillips of SidleyAustin in Washington, and for the prisoners will be Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley — a non-profit law firm that pursues cases on the rights of inmates in California.
America’s prisons now hold more than 2.3 million inmates, and many of the facilities are overcrowded, with serious implications for both health and safety. In C alifornia, the states’ 33 prisons are operating at almost twice their design capacity — actually, 195 percent, meaning that two inmates have to occupy the space designed for one.
But what most concerned Congress, in 1996, was the crowding that it saw on the dockets of the federal courts, with prisoners’ lawsuits piling up and taking longer to decide. The lawmakers’ response was two-fold.
First, to curtail the effotts by state inmates to repeatedly contest in federal habeas court their convictions and sentences, Congress enacted the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, setting up several new barriers to habeas challanges. That act paralleled an effort in the Supreme Court to narrow the scope of habeas rights — most significantly, in the 1989 case of Teague v. Lane.
Second, Congress concluded that courts were being drawn too often into overseeing the day-to-day operations of prisons, with sometimes broad judicial decrees to remedy harsh conditions behind the walls. The lawmakers enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act, with much of the limited debate preceding passage focusing on what the legislators thought were frivolous claims by inmates. PLRA does not deal at all with inmates’ convictions or sentences, but only with the conditions of prison life. It has clearly reached at least one of Congress’s goals: prisoners’ lawsuits have dropped by 60 percent since 1995.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled on the scope of the habeas restraints in AEDPA; in fact, an AEDPA case appears at least once in every Term on the Court’s docket. It has had far fewer cases testing the civil lawsuits restrictions in PLRA. The most significant of the PLRA cases has now reached the Court.
If the Justices work their way through to a final ruling on the merits, the case could be a landmark on the power of federal judges to simply send some inmates home from prison, as an ultimate means of reducing overcrowding and the health hazards that result, for inmates and for correctional staff members.
Before PLRA was enacted, federal courts relied on general principles of equity to adopt remedies for overcrowding. The PLRA displaced that approach, with a comprehensive scheme to govern federal litigation over prison conditions.
The Act takes two separate approaches. It imposes one set of requirements on prisoner lawsuits that seek any kind of future relief in prison conditions. A second part deals only with the requirements for a court order to actually release inmates from custody as a remedy — treated by the Act as “the remedy of last resort.” Such a release order, Congress specified, could involve either reducing inmate population outright, or barring new admissions to prisons. A cap on a facility’s total population is one of the options.