California’s ‘Willful Disobedience’
Last year the Supreme Court took the extraordinary step of ordering California to reduce the dangerous overcrowding in its prisons. The state had challenged an earlier ruling requiring it to meet a specific limit on the number of state prisoners. The court firmly rejected that challenge.
Without such a limit, Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the majority, there would be “a certain and unacceptable risk of continuing violations” of prisoners’ rights caused by horrible conditions, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment.
The majority upheld a limit of 137.5 percent of capacity that had been set in 2009 by a special three-judge federal court. Extensive evidence had convinced the judges that the state could reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 out of more than 140,000 “without an adverse impact on public safety,” and that there was “universal official support” for the state to do so.
A month ago, the three-judge panel again ordered the state to take “all steps necessary” to meet the limit. In response, the state made clear that it did not ever intend to meet the limit and certainly not by the deadline of June next year. It said in part that “continued enforcement of the population reduction order will be unnecessary and legally inappropriate once the population density reaches 145 percent.” The plaintiffs have now asked the panel to order the state to show why it should not be held in contempt for “such willful disobedience.”