State prisons cannot temporarily segregate inmates by race except under the most extraordinary circumstances, the Supreme Court said Wednesday, 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 9th 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.
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.