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U.S. Supreme Court Denies Stay of California Prisoner Release Order

In a 6-3 decision issued August 2, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court denied California Governor Jerry Brown’s request for a stay of a three-judge court’s order requiring the state to comply with a December 31, 2013 deadline to reduce California’s in-state prison population to approximately 110,000, or 137.5% of design capacity. [See: PLN, Aug. 2013, p.20].

Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas would have granted the stay. In an acerbic dissent, Justice Scalia reasserted his opinion in the Court’s May 23, 2011 ruling upholding the release order, stating the order “violated the clear limitations of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A) – ‘besides defying all sound conception of the proper role of judges.’” [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].

The three-judge court’s release order, according to Scalia, was a “bluff” to gain compliance from the state while allowing state officials to decide how to accomplish the prison population reduction. In his dissent, Scalia lamented, “The bluff has been called, and the Court has nary a pair to lay on the table.” He sided with Governor Brown’s argument asserting the substantial progress the state had made to simultaneously reduce prison overcrowding and improve medical care, as demonstrated by California’s current prison population of 120,000 as well as the timely opening of a 1,750-bed hospital prison in Stockton.

The denial of the stay by the Supreme Court means the only remaining choices for Governor Brown are to follow the order of the three-judge court or risk being held in contempt. The state can further reduce its prison population by sending more prisoners to out-of-state facilities, moving additional prisoners to in-state county jails, transferring more prisoners to fire camps, reducing the number of parole violators returned to prison, increasing good-conduct credits for certain offenders, or various combinations of those options.

California prison officials quickly announced that they intend to transfer at least 4,000 prisoners to county jails, in-state privately-operated community corrections facilities and private prisons in other states. Additionally, some elderly and infirm prisoners may be released on medical parole.

Following the Supreme Court’s denial of the stay, state officials formally appealed the three-judge court’s order. Regardless, by the end of the day – and December 31, 2013 will be the last day – California’s in-state prison population cannot exceed 137.5% of design capacity. See: Plata v. Brown, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. C01-1351 TEH and Coleman v. Brown, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:90-cv-0520 (three-judge court).

Additional source: Los Angeles Times

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Related legal cases

Plata v. Brown

Coleman v. Brown