WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court made it easier yesterday for state and local officials who run prisons, jails, mental hospitals and other public institutions to get out from under federal judges' orders imposing reforms on those facilities.
For the first time, the court made clear that tight budgets at the state and local level may be used by officials to get some relaxation of court orders requiring costly changes in an institution's operation.
The new decision, unanimous on the key legal point, may affect scores of outstanding orders by federal judges seeking to protect the constitutional rights of inmates, juveniles, patients and others at public facilities.
As the number of constitutional and civil rights has grown for those in public institutions in recent years, lawsuits have led to sometimes sweeping, sometimes very detailed orders by federal judges regulating day-to-day policies and practices -- and even the design of buildings.
Locally, four prisons -- the Maryland Correctional Institution and the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, the House of Correction in Jessup and the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore -- operate under consent decrees limiting their populations, as does the Baltimore City Detention Center, which the state took over from the city government last year.
The state is not currently seeking modifications to the consent decrees, but "we're continuing to examine them to determine whether or not we should," said Richard M. Kastendieck, an assistant state's attorney specializing in corrections litigation.
The ruling yesterday came in a case in which a federal judge in Boston had issued a series of orders governing the operation of the old "Charles Street Jail" -- an aging facility designed to hold prisoners in one-person cells but used later for double-celling when the inmate population grew rapidly. The judge also issued orders that led to building a new jail, and it, too, was put under court regulations.
The Suffolk County sheriff, the Boston mayor and Massachusetts officials sought to have the judge relax the controls, contending that some were too costly and others too burdensome to be met on a continuing basis.
Those requests were largely turned aside by lower courts, which said that officials had agreed to most of the conditions when a prisoner lawsuit was settled and that the court order growing out of the settlement could not be relaxed unless the orders would lead to "grievous wrong" because of "new and unforeseen conditions."
The Supreme Court said yesterday that that was too strict a standard to use in considering the loosening of federal court orders.
The court's ruling came in two cases, Rufo vs. Inmates and Vose vs. Inmates (Nos. 90-954 and 90-1004).