California State Prison Overcrowding: The U.S. Supreme Court Decision and Its Aftermath

Jul 12, 2011

On May 23, 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States gave California officials a strict order to cut its prison population by at least 23%, reducing its inmate population from 143,435 to 109,805. In Brown v. Plata, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy made the concluding 5-4 vote, stating that “needless suffering and death have been the well-documented result” of overcrowded prisons. California must fulfill this order by May 2013 with four deadlines within the two years, requiring a 10,000 inmate reduction for each benchmark. If the state does not meet the deadlines, the courts have the authority to order prisoners released.

Issues stemming from California’s overcrowded prisons were first brought to the court’s attention over two decades ago as a violation of the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment for crimes. What has come to light from these cases is that California’s prisons are designed to house no more than 80,000 inmates, but currently it is housing almost double that amount. Overpopulation has created an array of problems for California’s prisons, but one major concern for inmates is their health. The Supreme Court’s decision is based on two class action suits that exhibit how California’s overpopulated prisons have hindered inmates from receiving proper medical attention.

In Coleman v Brown, filed in 1990, the District Court found inmates with serious mental disorders not receiving the minimal adequate care they needed. Remedial efforts were made but after 12 years, an appointed Special Master declared it did not improve the lack of medical attention mentally ill patients needed. It was reported that conditions became worse after the case was filed and it was found that “the state of mental health care in California’s prisons was deteriorating due to increased overcrowding.”

In 2001, Plata v. Brown was filed, once again bringing attention to the increasing population in California’s prisons. This civil case voiced similar health concerns mentioned in Coleman, where seriously ill inmates complained about lacking medical care and it becoming a violation of their 8th amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. A remedial injunction was ordered but had not been complied with by 2005; therefore a Receiver was appointed to oversee the remedial efforts but it was reported that there were “continuing deficiencies caused by overcrowding.”

Remedial efforts in both cases failed to alleviate the problems inmates were facing when they attempted to receive medical care. Believing that the only solution to relieve medical and mental care for inmates is to reduce overcrowding, the cases were consolidated and moved to a three-judge court empowered by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA). After 6 months of hearing testimony and a review of extensive facts, the Supreme Court ordered California to immediately reduce its prison population. Because it appeared that new construction could not comply with the two-year deadline, California Officials were ordered to come up with an alternative plan to reduce the prison’s population.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court and was critical of the conditions inmates faced in prison. “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.” Justice Kennedy explained that prisons have the responsibility to provide food, shelter, and necessary medical care for inmates since their rights to provide for themselves were taken away upon being convicted.

With the population steadily increasing, Justice Kennedy also included in his opinion conclusions from Plata. “[I]t is an uncontested fact that, on average, an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days due to constitutional deficiencies in the [California prisons’] medical delivery system.” California’s overcrowded prisons are affecting inmates’ access to much needed medical care and causing their health to deteriorate. To comply with the constitutional mandate, Justice Kennedy mentioned a few options that included transferring inmates to county facilities or other states, extending design capacity, and possibly releasing parole violators into community based programs.

Justice Antonin Scalia filed a dissent, calling the order a “judicial travesty.” His opinion discusses his argument against the District Court’s conclusion that the governing statute was violated, the bedrock rule, and federal court’s judicial limitations.

Justice Samuel Alito also wrote a dissent wherein he argued that no 8th amendment violation occurred at all and that the constitutional standard is currently met. Moreover, his opinion states that the federal judges overstepped their boundaries and made a radical decision for a state penal system, which the Constitution does not authorize.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision and mandate, on June 7, 2011, Governor Jerry Brown submitted a plan that he believes would reduce California’s prison population while meeting the stipulations of the order. His plan includes restructuring the parole system, providing inmates with more opportunities to earn early release credits, creating a rehabilitative program for parole violators, and changing the law to increase the threshold for felonies that could be misdemeanors. While releasing inmates is not part of the proposed plan, Governor Brown’s goal is to reduce inmate population while still protecting public safety. He expressed that this is something that can be done properly and effectively with the appropriate support and funding from the Legislature.

Additionally, on June 8, 2011 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) submitted a report to the federal Three-Judge Court updating it on prison crowding reduction measures that the state has taken, or plans to take, stating that, “California has already reduced its prison population significantly over the past several years. Today, we have the lowest crowding levels in California’s prisons since 1995 . . . Our goal is to meet the Court’s order by continuing to reduce prison crowding while still holding offenders accountable.” The CDCR also reported that, “Our current reduction plan does not include the early release of inmates. But it is absolutely critical that the Legislature understand the seriousness of the Supreme Court’s decision and support a variety of measures that will allow us to lower our inmate population in the safest possible way.”

In sum, California’s plan to relieve prison overcrowding includes:

• Transferring 10,000 inmates to out-of-state prisons;

• Building new prisons, health care, and mental health facilities and converting juvenile detentions centers to adult facilities;

• Moving low-level, non-violent offenders to county jails as part of the “Realignment” plan outlined in Assembly Bill 109 signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in April. This would purportedly free up space for the state to focus on incarcerating serious, violent, and sexual offenders.

After months of debate and partisan bickering, California found a way to fund Governor Brown’s solution. Passed the day before the beginning of the new fiscal year, without Republican support, the new budget that Governor Brown recently signed on June 30th redirects five billion dollars from state sales and vehicle taxes to the local governments that will house the reassigned inmates. In addition to providing the requested funding, lawmakers delayed the program for three months in order to give the state time to coordinate with the counties.

Accordingly, after October 1, 2011 local officials will be given jurisdiction over offenders convicted of non-violent crimes and will also have the responsibility of parole and rehabilitation. While this appears to be progress and a tangible plan, it is questionable and perhaps overly ambitious to conclude that the state will meet the December 27th deadline set by the Supreme Court to reduce the state prison population by 10,000 inmates by the end of the year.

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