The Supreme Court ordered California to reduce overcrowding in its prisons in an opinion handed down this week. Full capacity, defined as one inmate per cell, would mean a prison population — across the state — of 80,000 prisoners. Those 33 facilities to which the order applies currently house over 140,000 inmates and are operating at 180% of full capacity. The Court upheld a lower court’s order giving California two years to cut this prison population to 137.5% of capacity.
Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 52 page opinion, declared that current prison conditions are “incompatible with the concept of human dignity.” Some commentators have echoed the Court’s language, finding the decision to represent a “win for dignity.”
Justice Scalia dissented, describing the order as a “judicial travesty” and “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.” He referred to the “fine physical specimens” with now “intimidating muscles” after “pumping iron in the prison gym”, who would apparently be the population of felons released onto the world in the wake of this order. His language was vehement but untethered from the practical possibilities open to prison officials.
Another dissent, written by Justice Alito and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, criticized the possible repercussions for public safety, criticizing how the Court’s decision would require the release of 46,000 prisoners, or as he put it, “the equivalent of three army divisions.” Some commentators have echoed that sentiment, describing how the decision “Sets [the] Stage for Felons to Go Free” and then pointing out the lack of instruction provided to prison officials on how to reach such a drastic reduction.