WASHINGTON-The U.S. Supreme Court issued a tall order to the state of California Monday: The state must reduce its prison population by releasing about 40,000 prisoners over the next two years.
The majority's opinion-which swing-vote Justice Anthony Kennedy penned with support from Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer-said California prisons were so overcrowded they were "incompatible with the concept of human dignity." The mentally and physically ill were not receiving care, Kennedy wrote, citing cases like a prisoner who was left in a telephone booth-sized cage for 24 hours, standing "nearly catatonic" in a pool of his own urine. A lower court found that a prisoner in the California system died for lack of medical care every six or seven days.
Prison Fellowship's Pat Nolan-who leads the organization's policy advocacy arm, Justice Fellowship-called the neglect of prisoners in California's system "truly disturbing," adding, 'As a civilized people and especially as Christians we have to provide the basics of life [to prisoners]."
The same morning the high court issued the decision, Nolan and other representatives from faith-based and community organizations were already meeting with officials from the California Department of Corrections to coordinate reentry programs, which will be critical for the state to implement the court's order.
"California has no budget," Nolan told me. "Here are all these faith-based and community groups who are saying, 'We'll do it.'" California spends nearly $9 billion a year on its prisons, which hold about 160,000 inmates. Its prison population is high for many reasons, including mandatory-minimum sentencing and a three-strikes law, which requires longer sentences for those convicted of a third felony. But the overcrowding in facilities is because the legislature has tried to imprison people "on the cheap," Nolan said
"The political system here is so dysfunctional," said Nolan, who served in the California legislature for 15 years and then spent more than two years in prison after being convicted on a corruption charge, which sparked his desire to work on prison reform. "The legislature has not been able to come to grips with it even with the Supreme Court breathing down its neck."
But California Department of Corrections chief Matthew Cate was already "way ahead of the curve," according to Nolan, in partnering with faith-based organizations to prepare prisoners to leave prison. "They don't want to just let people free, they want them to be good neighbors," Nolan said. The organizations will match exiting prisoners with a mentor, and then connect them with local groups and churches that will address areas of need: housing, drug treatment, job training, and the like.
Cate issued a statement that refrained from condemning the court's decision, but he said he found it "disappointing" that the court ignored that the state had already reduced its prison population by almost 13,000 and had improved inmate healthcare. He also noted that he would need funding from the legislature to implement the order.
The conservative justices sharply dissented from the decision, prophesying disaster from such massive prisoner reentry. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote an opinion, which Justice Clarence Thomas joined, saying the decision went beyond the authority of federal judges and was "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history."
Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate dissenting opinion, which Chief Justice John Roberts joined, also saying the decision was not within the authority of a federal judge. Alito wrote that the court could have narrowly aided prisoners with untended medical and mental health issues without the release of so many prisoners. The court "is gambling with the safety of the people of California," Alito wrote. "I fear that today's decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong."
The majority opinion does allow the state to seek an extension of the deadline to release prisoners from a lower court, if the state is truly unable to meet the two-year deadline.