Thursday, December 2, 2010

Terminal Litigation on California Prison Crowding

Does a federal court have the authority to order a large-scale release of prisoners in a state prison system? “Large-scale,” in the case from California now before the Supreme Court, means upwards of 46,000 inmates.

In the abstract, it seems like a breathtaking extension of federal power. But the question can be posed in a more specific way: Does a federal court have the authority to direct a state to grant early parole to relieve overcrowding so severe that it poses drastic risks to the health and safety of inmates and the state has systematically refused to build additional facilities?

The question was argued in the Supreme Court this week. The SCOTUS blog – a remarkable resource for the Internet age – has comprehensive coverage.

Litigation over California's overcrowded prisons has been playing out in the courts for years. It's been like Bleak House meets the Big House.

And as with any long-running series, sometimes the cast has to change. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have played the role of The Terminator in his movie career, but he won't be ending this messy saga. Jerry Brown won the election last month and will be replacing Arnold in the governor's chair, Whatever the outcome in the Supreme Court, Schwarzenegger v. Plata will be in need of a new caption.

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