As per legal requirements, the Supreme Court reviewed the factual findings of the three judge panel using a standard of “clear error”, which allows them less leeway for intervention than in the legal findings, which are reviewed de novo. For this reason, the factual basis for the decision is quite familiar to those who read the original three-judge-panel order, but the legal analysis is rather extensive.
The decision outright rejects the state’s contention that the three judge panel was convened incorrectly, stating that the time that passed and the lack of relief necessitated this step. Documenting the standard of care, the abundant vacancies for medical and mental health staff, and the shortfall of resources, Justice Kennedy states that the court had waited long enough before recurring to this admittedly drastic step. Justice Kennedy supports and affirms the three-judge-panel conclusions that overcrowding was the dominant reason for the violations, as well as their conclusion, after considering many other options, that other remedial efforts had not borne fruit and therefore the only recourse would have to be reducing the population.
While the population reduction is of “unprecedented sweep and extent”, writes Justice Kennedy, “yet so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations.” Justice Kennedy devotes a large portion of the opinion to a detailed description of the overcrowded conditions, mentioning the San Quentin converted gym (the very first picture we posted on this blog.) He provides details of numerous incidents in which inmates received appalling mental and physical care. He also provides details of the history of both cases, Coleman and Plata, and how the various measures to which the state resorted throughout the years (including a special master for the mental health system and a federal receiver for the medical system) failed to improve conditions. In this part he relies extensively on data from the receiver and the special master, as well as in the three-judge-panel decision. His description of how overcrowding is a direct and indirect cause for the abysmal health care follows closely the original panel order, citing, among other factors, the unsanitary conditions and the reliance on lockdowns, both discussed extensively in the original order.
“To incarcerate, society takes from prisoners the means to provide for their own needs. Prisoners are dependent on the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care. A prison’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates ‘may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death’.’. . . Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. 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. . . [i]f the government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation.”
As far as its practical implications, the decision is a mixed blessing. Readers looking for an unequivocal statement on behalf of decarceration will find its bottom line a bit more disappointing than it leads to believe. Justice Kennedy is cautious to mention, in the very opening paragraphs, that “[t]he order leaves the choice of means to reduce overcrowding to the discretion of state officials. But absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfers, or other means–or modification of the order upon a further showing by the State–the State will be required to release some number of prisoners before their full sentences have been served.” By framing the issue in this way, Justice Kennedy sets the stage for the state to avoid early releases by recurring to damaging, malignant techniques, which will only increase mass incarceration in the long run.
However, there are also more optimistic bits. Justice Kennedy seems fairly convinced by the evidence presented to the original panel about the possibility of reducing population without causing an increase in crime and endangering public safety. He also affirms the panel’s estimate as to the extent of the reduction. His words on that are a vote of confidence in the panel’s work, comparing their projection that a 137.5% capacity would be reasonable under the circumstances to the situation in other states and in the federal prisons.
Justice Kennedy is careful to cut the state some slack in the timing of its plan. He encourages the state to “move for modification of the . . . order to extend the deadline for the required reduction to five years from the entry of the judgment of this court, the deadline proposed in the State’s first population reduction plan. . . [t]he three-judge court, in its discretion, may also consider whether it is appropriate to order the State to begin without delay to develop a system to identify prisoners who are unlikely to reoffend or who might otherwise be candidates for early release.” For this purpose, an extension of time is encouraged. While some inmate advocates may scoff at this, it’s important to remember that, from now on, the state and the courts need to cooperate, and in the course of this long-term cooperation, many compromises will have to be made.