Supreme Court Debates Remedy for California Prison Overcrowding

Dec 8, 2010

By Kristen Friend, staff U.S. Supreme Court and Congress writer – December 8, 2010

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last Tuesday in a case that will further clarify the role federal courts can play in regulating state prison systems.

California’s prison system has faced overcrowding for over 20 years. In 2009, a specially convened federal three-judge court issued a prisoner release order. The court determined the order was only remedy for the problem of California’s chronic prison overpopulation.

The Supreme Court is now being asked to determine whether to uphold the ruling of the three-judge court. The order, if enforced, will reduce California’s prison population through the release of roughly 44,000 inmates over the next two years.

The case is a combination of two class action lawsuits that have been working their way through lower courts for two decades. The court extended the Nov. 30 oral arguments from 60 to 80 minutes, providing an extra 20 minutes to hear arguments from both sets of respondents’ attorneys.

Under consideration is, first, whether the three-judge panel had jurisdiction to order the release of prisoners under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. If the court did have jurisdiction, did it properly find that a prisoner release order was the only possible remedy, and did the court give appropriate weight to public safety concerns. [1]

The Prison Litigation Reform Act gives federal courts the right to issue prisoner release orders. However, any orders must be narrowly crafted to address only Eighth Amendment violations, and they must take public safety into account. A special court may be convened under the PLRA only after a reasonable amount of time has been provided to allow state officials to pursue other remedies.

California’s prisons have been contending with a population explosion for decades. California began enacting mandatory sentencing guidelines and fixed sentencing lengths in the 1950s, and sentencing terms have subsequently been extended by a series of laws and ballot initiatives. One result of these policies is that the state’s 33 prisons now function at almost double their intended capacity, meaning they house must two inmates in facilities intended for only one person. [2]

In 1990, attorneys for a group of California inmates filed a class action lawsuit, stating that as a result of overcrowding, their client’s rights were being systematically violated under the Eighth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the federal Rehabilitation Act. The case, Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, focused specifically on mental health care issues. The inmates claimed that they were being provided inadequate mental health services, resulting in unacceptably high rates of suicide and mental illness. [3]

The second suit, Plata v. Schwarzenegger, was filed in 2001. In Plata, inmates alleged the lack of adequate health care services of any kind, mental or physical, was so severe that inmates’ rights were being violated under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The violations, the plaintiffs claimed, were caused unnecessary pain and suffering, injury and even death. [4]

The Supreme Court has defined adequate health care as, “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.” [5] Inmates are not demanding cutting edge care. They are asking that at the very least their basic mental and physical health needs be met so that people stop dying of treatable illnesses and suicide. Among the conditions documented in the California prison system is the suicide rate: twice the national average.

In both cases district courts have agreed with the plaintiffs, ruling that prison overcrowding was the chief issue preventing the state from providing constitutionally adequate health care services. The decisions produced series of around 70 court orders intended to remedy the problem. In 1995, a special master was appointed to supervise mental health care in California’s prisons. Since 1995, district courts have found inadequate mental health care to be a continuing problem for which California officials have failed to find a suitable remedy.

The Plata suit was settled in 2002, with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations agreeing to enforce policies that would bring the standard of health care in California’s prisons up to the constitutionally mandated minimum level.

Regardless of the rulings and subsequent court orders, the overcrowding situation in California’s prisons has remained dire. In 2005, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson placed California’s prison system into Receivership. In his ruling, Judge Henderson wrote that an inmate died as a direct result of inadequate health care every six to seven days. [6] In 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency as a result of prison overcrowding, calling the state’s prisons places “of extreme peril.” [7]

Both sets of plaintiffs continued to allege that California had not addressed its overcrowding or health care issues. In 2007, the Plata and Coleman courts agreed that a three-judge panel should be convened to hear both cases. In 2009, the court decided that prisoner release order was the only remedy for California’s prison overpopulation, and gave the state two years to present a plan to reduce the overall population in California’s prisons to 137.5 percent of capacity. [8]

Federalism, or states rights, is chief among the issues raised by the case. The Supreme Court’s ruling has the potential to define how involved federal judges may be in determining state prison policy. The case asks: When may federal judges force the state to reduce its prison population?

A group of law enforcement and corrections personnel filed a brief on behalf of the respondents, arguing for greater federal involvement in state prison policy. In their brief, the group claimed federal intervention is necessary given the prior failures of state policy. The Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce filed a brief defending the state’s right to make policy with less federal intervention. The Chamber’s brief claims that the standard for federal court intervention should be very high, since federal courts do not have an understanding of state budgetary issues.

The four conservative leaning justices may be skeptical of federal intervention in state policy, but the PLRA clearly intends to give federal judges the right to become involved should conditions warrant such action. The Supreme Court will have to take the intent of the law, and of Congress, into account when ruling on the appropriate threshold for federal action.

The case also raises issues of prisoner’s rights and public safety. The American Bar Association filed a brief claiming that a decision in favor of the state of California would unjustly punish prisoners since. The state, the brief claims, has proven itself incapable of providing constitutionally acceptable conditions.

Opinions on whether or not a release of prisoners will adversely affect public safety are mixed. An increasing number of criminologists and experts believe that lengthy incarceration and mandatory sentences do little to actually reduce crime rates. Prison population and crime, they allege, can be better controlled through other measures, such as increasing parole rates and keeping lower-risk offenders out of prisons. Some State Attorneys General disagree. Attorneys General for Louisiana and 17 other states filed a brief, arguing that prisoner release orders would inevitably lead to an increase in crime.

In arguments last Tuesday, a majority of justices appeared to agree that conditions in California’s prisons are so bad that inmates’ constitutional rights are being violated.

Justice Stephen Breyer called the situation in California’s prisons “a big human rights problem,” citing a brief that said prisoners had been “discovered catatonic in pools of their own urine after spending nights locked in small cages.” [9]

Carter G. Phillips, an attorney for state of California, admitted that conditions in California’s prisons had been bad, but claimed that the state was making progress. Phillips argued that the state needs more time to alleviate the overcrowding problem, saying the federal court’s intervention was “extraordinarily premature.” [10]

In response, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked, “How much longer do we have to wait? Another 20 years?” [11]

Conservative leaning justices appeared ready to overturn the order of the three-judge court on public safety grounds. “If I were a citizen of California, I would be concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners,” said Justice Samuel Alito. [12]

Chief Justice John Roberts echoed Justice Alito’s concerns about public safety, and added that too much federal intervention could interfere with the state’s other priorities. Roberts asked, “What happens when you have this case, another district court ordering the state to take action with respect to environmental damage, another court saying you have got to spend this much more on education for disabled, another court saying you have got to spend this much more on something else? How does the state sort out its obligations?” [13]

Attorney for the respondents, Donald Specter, replied saying the state had already received adequate flexibility. Specter argued that, at some point, the state had to meet its constitutional obligations.

With the court appearing to split along the usual conservative-liberal lines, the outcome of the case will most likely rest with vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy acknowledged the state had failed to address constitutional violations, saying, “The problem is that at some point the court has to say: You have been given enough time; the constitutional violation still persists, as the state itself acknowledges.” [14]

While five of the nine justices seemed to agree the court was correct in ordering California to remedy its prison overcrowding problem, there was not clear agreement on whether the justices believed the court ordered the right fix.

Kennedy seemed skeptical of the three-judge court’s decision to cap the population at 137.5 percent of capacity. Kennedy wondered whether that number was arbitrary, and whether a higher number might be as effective in addressing the problem. Justice Elena Kagan suggested that California might be given longer than the mandated two years to meet the population goals.

The case is Schwarzenegger v. Plata. A decision is not expected until spring.

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