California’s attempt to halt a mass prisoner release gets skeptical hearing at Supreme Court

A majority of the justices say the state has failed to remedy the problem of severe prison overcrowding, despite decades of lawsuits. But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. warns that releasing 40,000 prisoners will bring more crime to California.

Mule Creek State Prison

Bunks are placed in open areas at Mule Creek State Prison. California is fighting an order from a federal court to release 40,000 prisoners from the state’s crowded prison system. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / June 3, 2010)

By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau

12:04 PM PST, November 30, 2010

WASHINGTON — California’s bid to block a court order that would require the state to release or transfer more than 40,000 inmates from its prisons ran into sharp and skeptical questioning at the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

A majority of the justices said the state had failed to remedy the severe overcrowding problem, despite decades of lawsuits and promises from the governor’s office.

“How much longer do we have to wait — another 20 years?” asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was reacting to the state lawyer’s contention that it was “premature” for a three-judge panel to order the state to reduce its prison population by one-fourth in two years.

“At some point, the court [in California] has to say, ‘You have been given enough time…. It’s now time for a remedy,’ ” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who grew up in Sacramento. That “seems to me perfectly reasonable,” he said.

Since 1990, the state has faced lawsuits contending that the prisons are not providing humane care for sick and mentally ill prisoners, and that severe overcrowding is the main cause of the problem.

But not all the justices were in agreement that releasing prisoners is the right remedy.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said releasing more prisoners will mean more crime on the streets of California. “If I were a citizen of California, I would be concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners,” he said, noting that mass releases of prisoners in other states has led to an increase in rapes, robberies and murders.

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