Thursday, February 24, 2005
High Court Rules Against Segregation in California Prisons
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
State prisons cannot temporarily segregate inmates by race except under the most extraordinary circumstances, the U.S.. Supreme Court said yesterday, all but ending a long-standing California policy aimed at reducing gang-related violence.
The 5-3 decision sets aside a lower court ruling in favor of California, which argued it should have wide leeway to set race-based restrictions to promote safety. As a result, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals must now scrutinize the 25-year-old policy for hard evidence that it is necessary and works — a burden that will be hard to meet.
Racial segregation is unconstitutional unless there is a “compelling” reason, justices said.
“Racial classifications raise special fears that they are motivated by an invidious purpose,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority. She was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not participate in considering the case, which was heard in November while he was being treated for thyroid cancer.
At issue was an unwritten California policy requiring officials to automatically bunk inmates by race for the first 60 days after their arrival. After an evaluation for dangerousness, inmates are then assigned to a permanent cell on a nonracial basis. Inmates are separated again by race when they transfer to a new facility.
The California prison system, with roughly 160,000 inmates, is the nation’s largest.
The lawsuit was brought by Garrison S. Johnson, a black inmate in prison since 1987 for murder, robbery and assault. He contended the policy violated his 14th Amendment right to equal protection, saying he was constantly humiliated by the segregation after each of his five prison transfers.
The Bush administration backed Johnson in the case, noting America’s “uniquely pernicious history” of racial discrimination in prisons that needed remedy. No other state nor the federal Bureau of Prisons has found it necessary to segregate prisoners by race, it said.
But California officials countered that temporarily segregating prisoners was more than justified in a prison system they called “ground zero” for race-based street gangs, such as the black Crips and the white Aryan Nations.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that judgments about whether race-based policies are necessary “are better left in the first instance to the officials who run our nation’s prisons.”
“The majority is concerned with sparing inmates the indignity and stigma of racial discrimination. California is concerned with their safety and saving their lives,” Thomas wrote. He was joined by Justice Antonin Scalia.
Justice John Paul Stevens filed a separate dissent arguing that the prison segregation should be declared outright discriminatory without opportunity for further review.
Ginsburg wrote a concurring opinion, which was joined by Breyer and Souter. While agreeing that the prison policy is subject to strict scrutiny, Ginsburg distanced herself from O’Connor’s suggestion that all racial classifications should be held to that standard of review.
The concurring justice cited the court’s 2003 decision allowing some consideration of race in university admissions. The distinction, she said, that the CDC made “no pretense here...that [it] installed its segregation policy to ‘correct inequalities.’” The department, she said, made a “stereotypical classification” that “warrants rigorous scrutiny.”
State Sen. Gloria Romero, an East Los Angeles Democrat who is the Senate majority leader and chairs its select committee overseeing the prison system, hailed the decision.
Romero, a persistent critic of the segregation policy, released a letter in which she called upon the governor to dismantle the policy rather than go back to the Ninth Circuit in an effort to justify it.
Invoking the language of the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education,, Romero told the governor:
“Today, I am calling on you to move ‘with all deliberate speed’ in ordering an end to this practice of state-sponsored racial segregation, which is practiced by no other state in the nation except California. As a Governor who prides himself on his commitment to prison reform, I ask you to bring California into the 21st century by ending what may be the last remaining vestige of racial segregation in California. If our nation could desegregate our military, our schools, our workplaces, and our eating establishments, then we can also desegregate our prisons.”
Romero asked for a meeting with the governor on the subject.
The case posed an interesting conflict for the high court. Since Brown, the court has repeatedly held that government-imposed race restrictions are almost always unacceptable. In 1968, it unanimously barred permanent racial segregation in prisons.
But justices had also given prison officials a generally free hand in managing their facilities, to control violence and protect inmates and those who guard them. That raised the question of whether prisons should be given deference to segregate inmates on a temporary basis.
“In the prison context, when the government’s power is at its apex, we think that searching judicial review of racial classifications is necessary to guard against invidious discrimination,” O’Connor wrote.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company