Going back to the 1990’s, California’s prison system has been found to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Designed to hold roughly 80,000 inmates, the prison system has been averaging a population of nearly 160,000 over the past 11 years. Two separate lawsuits ensued. Coleman v. Brown alleged inability to adequately provide mental health treatment, and Plata v. Brown alleged inability to provide adequate physical health treatment.
Lower courts gave California between five and twelve years to correct the problems without success. After failure to resolve the problems, the two cases were consolidated before a three judge panel which found that the primary cause of the problems was overcrowding in the prison system and ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of capacity within two years. That’s a reduction from roughly 156,000 current inmates to 110,000, requiring the release of about 46,000 inmates. Today the U. S. Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the three judge panel.
Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, described the overcrowding in stark terms,
“Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers. … As many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet.”
In this case, Kennedy joined the “liberal” bloc of the Court, leaving Scalia to write a dissent in which Thomas joined and leaving Alito to write a dissent in which Roberts joined.
The case, which you can read in full here , relies on statutory interpretation which allows for inmate reduction orders where a state has been given sufficient opportunity to correct a problem and where overcrowding is found to be the primary cause of the constitutional violations. On the mental health side of this case, the Court found that even if California could increase mental health staffing, facilities did not exist for such staff. On the physical health side, the Court noted a backlog of 700 waiting for necessary treatment.
In dissent, Scalia tears into the majority’s decision beginning in his first sentence.
“Today the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history: an order requiring California to release the staggering number of 46,000 convicted criminals.”
Contributor, aka tidbits. Retired attorney in complex litigation, death penalty defense and constitutional law. Former Nat’l Board Chair: Alzheimer’s Association. Served on multiple political campaigns, including two for U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield (R-OR). Contributing author to three legal books and multiple legal publications.