S.Ct.: Upholds Order to Reduce California Prison Population

The Supreme Court upheld a court order requiring California to reduce its prison population from around 200% of capacity to 137.5% of designed capacity within two years. Brown v. Plata, No. 09-1233, 2011 WL 1936074 (2011).

The reduction could require the release of 36,000 prisoners.  Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, which held that the mandated population limit was authorized under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) and necessary to remedy constitutional violations resulting from inadequate mental and medical health care.  Justice Scalia dissented, joined by Justice Thomas.  Justice Alito dissented separately, joined by Chief Justice Roberts.

Systemic overcrowding in California prisons lead to extensive delays in diagnosis and access to care.  Chronic understaffing left mentally and medically ill patients waiting months and even years for appointments.  Frequent lockdowns delayed access to medication, and evidence showed that one inmate died every six or seven days due to deficiencies in California’s prison medical system.

In accordance with the PLRA, a panel must find that crowding was the primary cause of the violation, that no other relief would remedy the violation, and that the relief proposed is narrowly drawn to extend no further than necessary to correct the violation. 18 U. S. C. §3626(a)(3)(E); §3626(a)(1)(A).

After reviewing evidence that overcrowding strains already inadequate mental and medical health facilities, overburdens staff, and leads to violent, unsanitary conditions, the Court agreed with the district court’s conclusion that “until the problem of overcrowding is overcome it will be impossible to provide constitutionally compliant care to California’s prison population.”

The Court rejected California’s claim that there were less restrictive forms of relief that could remedy the violation.  The State suggested transferring prisoners, building more facilities and hiring more staff.  The Court noted that even if county transfers and transfers out of State are less restrictive, California had provided no evidence of a plan that could transfer a sufficient number of inmates to relieve overcrowding.  Construction of new facilities is unfeasible, considering the State’s ongoing fiscal problems.  In addition, hiring more staff is unlikely to be effective since evidence shows that overcrowding, itself, is a large factor in the chronic understaffing and inability to retain hired staff that has plagued the system.  The court order does not bar California from making such remedial efforts and allows for the modification or termination of the order if the measures are effective within the deadline.

The Court held that even though, overall, the remedy could affect prisoners who were not subject to Eight Amendment abuses, the population limit is not overbroad.  Kennedy noted that the plaintiff class cannot be limited to those with current mental or medical health issues because prisoners who are presently healthy are not bystanders, but the system’s next victims.  In considering a State’s authority over its own prison system, the Court held that while the decision shapes authority in some ways, the district court gave adequate discretion to the State to implement the order according to its own design.  On this point, Kennedy urged that the State should be given flexibility to execute the decision in a way that would protect public safety.

Justice Scalia wrote a strong dissent, calling the lower court proceedings a “judicial travesty” and the Court’s decision “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history.”  He rejected the existence of a “system-wide Eighth Amendment violation,” arguing that if every plaintiff in the class has not suffered, then the decision is contrary to the aim of class litigation—to aggregate people with individually viable claims—and that the idea that each prisoner who has been through the medical system has suffered cruel or unusual punishment, whether such person can make an individual showing or not, is an equally contrary theory of the Eighth Amendment.  He also criticized the Court for upholding policy preferences that exceeded the proper role of the district court.

Justice Alito dissented, noting that the Court’s decision did not remedy the specific constitutional violations found, but crafted a response that is only of modest help to those suffering from the mental and medical health care deficiencies, while creating a dire effect on public safety.

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