Supreme Court upholds order to release thousands of prisoners

24 May 2011 – A ruling on Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court mandated the nation’s largest prison in California to release thousands of inmates due to overcrowding. Renee Wilson writes for the Digital Journal.

The Supreme Court upheld a federal lower-court order and commanded the prison relief itself of over 30,000 prisoners in a 5-4 vote over a two-year period.

With over 140,000 inmates at the moment, the court ruled that the current conditions of the prison are “incompatible with the concept of human dignity,” and a violation of constitutional rights. More specifically violating the eighth amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the majority vote said, “The release of prisoners in large numbers, assuming the state finds no other way to comply with the order, is a matter of undoubted, grave concern. Yet so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan also voted for the prisoners to be released.

When a three-judge panel first ordered for the prison to become less crowded the State of California wanted to appeal its ruling. Instead, the Supreme Court pushed the courts order further. At one point in time the California prison system held double the amount of inmates it was meant to hold, about 160,000. Since the first order, 9,000 prisoners have been released. An attorney for the inmates said 32,000 are to be released as well.

Kennedy said that the lower court was right to decide that the prison violated the eighth amendment and added, “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.”

On the other hand, Justice Antonin Scalia said that those who were deprived of sufficient medical care weren’t necessarily going to be those who are released stating, “Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”

Concluding the majority opinion, Kennedy said that the lower court should be flexible in considering how to carry out its order.

Scalia disagreed saying the majority opinion is “a bizarre coda” and “a deliberately ambiguous set of suggestions on how to modify the injunction.”

“Perhaps the coda is nothing more than a ceremonial washing of the hands,” Scalia said, ”making it clear for all to see, that if the terrible things sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order do happen, they will be none of this court’s responsibility. After all, did we not want, and indeed even suggest, something better?”

Also opposing the order are Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., agreeing that the decision will impact public safety.

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. In a few years, we will see.”

Read the original article here.

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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