WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court appeared ready Tuesday to endorse an order calling on California to move thousands of inmates out of its overcrowded prisons so that those who remain get adequate health care.
The justices heard an extended argument in a case over long-standing violations of constitutional rights in a state prison system that last year averaged nearly a death a week that might have been prevented or delayed with better medical care.
The state's 33 adult prisons hold more than 144,000 inmates. The facilities were designed to hold about 80,000.
A federal court has ordered the population cut to around 110,000 inmates within two years, but the state calls the reduction too much, too soon.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said inmates already have been waiting 20 years and wondered, "how much longer do we have to wait, another 20 years?"
Taking the other side, Justice Samuel Alito said, "If I were a citizen of California, I'd be very concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners."
Carter Phillips, a Washington-based lawyer representing the state, predicted a spike in crime if the state has to comply with the two-year deadline. "I guarantee you, there's going to be more crime and people are going to die on the streets of California," Phillips said at the end of his argument.
Donald Specter, the Berkeley, Calif.-based lawyer representing the inmates, disputed that crime will go up. Specter said the state has many options, including the release of only low-risk and older inmates, transfers of others to out-of-state prisons and changes that will keep people who commit only technical violations of their parole from being sent back to prison.
The justices could order the lower court to modify its plan, perhaps by calling for a smaller cut in the prison population. But a majority of the court signaled agreement with the broad outlines of an order aimed at improving medical care quickly.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said the three-judge court correctly determined that overcrowding is the main reason for what even the state concedes has been inadequate care and then tried to figure out the best way to fix the problem. "It seems to me a perfectly reasonable decision," Kennedy said.
Phillips tried to persuade the high court that the California system already has made substantial progress. The population is about 14,000 below its peak and the number of preventable deaths, while still high, was much lower last year than in the two preceding years, he said.
He called the order issued by three federal judges in California "extraordinarily premature."
"Nobody doubts for a moment that there have been very significant violations of constitutional rights," Phillips said. But in recent years, he said, "there has been significant movement in the right direction."
Specter urged the court to let the lower court order take effect. "Unless you reduce the crowding, nothing works," he said.
Eighteen other states have joined Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration in urging the justices to reject the order as overreaching and arguing that it poses a threat to public safety. Attorneys general elsewhere fear they could face similar legal challenges if the decision survives.
The California dispute is the first time the high court is considering a prisoner release order under a 1996 federal law that made it much harder for inmates to challenge prison conditions.
The court is weighing whether the three judges overstepped their authority and, if not, whether their order is targeted to fix the problem. The state's lawyers say the judges could have helped mentally and physically ill inmates without such a sweeping order.
A decision is expected by summer.
The case is Schwarzenegger v. Plata, 09-1233.