Because it is unrealistic to believe that the nation’s largest state can “build itself out of this crisis,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a California native, joined the court’s four consistent liberals in agreeing that it is time for the courts to force the state to act.
“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,” Kennedy wrote. “Yet so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations.”
Perhaps mindful of the public reaction to one of the largest prison reduction orders in the nation’s history, Kennedy listed various ways that state officials could reduce the prison population without releasing dangerous criminals, including transfers to local jails or prisons out of state.
And he underscored the depth of the prison system’s problems by taking the rare step of including photos in his opinion showing the overcrowded conditions — huge rooms jammed with tight rows of bunk beds and phone-booth-size cells in which some prisoners were held.
But his opinion was met with two scorching dissents.
Justice Antonin Scalia, signaling the extent of his disagreement by reading his dissent from the bench, said his colleagues were affirming “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history,” and he warned of “terrible things sure to happen as a consequence.’’ of this outrageous order.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in a dissent joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., added: “The majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California. . . . 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.”
Perhaps the most low-key reaction on a day of high emotions was from California Gov. Jerry Brown.
The California legislature has approved a Brown-instigated proposal that could eventually transfer 40,000 state inmates to local jails, and he said in a statement that the decision should spur lawmakers to fully fund the plan.
“As we work to carry out the court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety,” Brown said in a statement.
David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, said the national significance of the decision was that it “reaffirms that courts will step in when necessary” to ensure that states maintain prison conditions that meet constitutional standards.