California to Release Thousands of Prisoners

In a 5-4 decision the United States Supreme Court upheld a three judge panel in California that ordered the release of 38,000 to 46,000 state inmates. The opinion, penned by Justice Kennedy, declared that the state of the California prisons violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The California Department of Corrections (DOC) reported that the state penitentiaries are over-flowing capacity by 32,000 inmates. (Also see Los Angeles Times article dated May 23, 2011.) Kennedy wrote that because of the over-crowded conditions in the state prisons, "prisoners may be deprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty." See Brown v. Plata (2011) 2011 U.S. Lexis 4012. Kennedy went on to say: "Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man." A majority of the court concluded that there was clear and convincing evidence that the overcrowding is affecting the health and welfare of the prison population, in violation of Federal rights. The court further upheld the lower three judge panel's determination that the exploding prison population now deprives inmates of basic sustenance and medical care. This is a surprising opinion from the high court as it has routinely denied the release of individual prisoners in the past and has overruled lower courts allowing such releases. It is also unclear exactly how many inmates will be released. The court differed to the three judge panel to work out the details of the prisoner release.

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