Crime & Justice

US Supreme Court to hear arguments on California’s prison cap

California prisoners in a crowded gymnasium.
California prisoners in a crowded gymnasium.
State of California

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On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could force California to limit the size of its prison population.

Last year three federal judges ordered the state to reduce the number of inmates by nearly a third - a reduction of roughly 46,000 prisoners. They said the prisons were so overcrowded that it was the only way to improve sub-standard prison medical and mental health care.

California officials appealed – and Tuesday, they'll put their case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nearly a decade ago, shoddy medical care in California prisons claimed the life of one inmate a week.

Don Spector with the Prison Law Office sued to force prison officials to improve medical care. Spector won the case (Plata v. Schwarzenegger), but he says too many inmates still go untreated.

“The state really hasn’t been able to say why they haven’t been able to provide adequate care, despite their best intentions,” Spector says. “And it’s true they have tried to improve the system, but they’re incapable of doing it because the system is simply just too crowded.”

California’s prisons are packed and have been for years. They hold nearly double the number of inmates they were built to hold.

Don Spector teamed up with attorney Michael Bien, who got a judge to order improvements in psychiatric care in prisons (Coleman v. Schwarzenegger). Together, they filed a motion for a prison population cap. They argued it was the only way to fix medical and mental health care for inmates.

“The courts have tried almost everything they can think of to try to compel the state to provide constitutionally adequate care,” Spector says. For example, in the Coleman case, he says the judge issued more than 70 orders "on all different subjects in all different kinds of ways. They [California prison officials] have tried to build more units. The state has passed legislation to build new prisons. That hasn’t worked."

Last year a panel of federal judges agreed that the only cure was to reduce the number of inmates in prison. They ordered California to find a way to thin the prison population by 46,000 inmates.

“I think our concern is it’s got to be done carefully. And we need to be able to do it at the pace that we think is safe,” says Secretary of Corrections Matthew Cate.

Cate says he shares the goal of reducing overcrowding in state prisons. He supports parole reform and alternative custody as a means to achieve that.

He’s also prepared to send more inmates to private prisons outside of California while the state builds new medical and psychiatric facilities and cells. But Cate says California has to be able to adapt when circumstance changes.

“Let’s say that we’ve seen a reduction in crime rates, for example, over the last several years,” Cate says. “Well if that trend reverses and we see a serious uptick in violent crime and at the same time we have to reduce our population in two years? What do you do?”

California officials have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the prisoner reduction order because they say it violates a 1996 federal statute called the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

“It’s the first case really testing this particular issue under a relatively new statute,” observes Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford's Criminal Justice Center, who also serves on an advisory panel to Thelton Henderson – the federal judge handling the case on prison medical care.

The statute sets standards for when a federal court can order a state to take some action to fix something that's wrong in its prison system. Stanford's Robert Weisberg says California will argue that the lower court didn't meet the statute’s criteria for ordering a cap on the inmate population.

First, overcrowding has to be the main reason why the rights of inmates are being violated – and second, a cap on the inmate population has to be the only way to stop it. Weisberg says attorneys for California are saying, “'We don’t need this aggressive action by the federal courts because we’re making so much progress.'”

Weisberg says attorneys for inmates argue that the “progress” the state claims it's made in the last decade has yet to solve the problem of poor medical and mental health care in the prisons. “The plaintiffs will say, look, we can’t get to where we need to get to without a population reduction – and that’s based on very sound evidence.”

Weisberg says if the Supreme Court upholds the prison population cap, California’s not going to suddenly release thousands of inmates. The state will have two years to incrementally reduce the overcrowding in prisons and, he says, the state could achieve that by expanding the prisons.

Weisberg says if the justices strike down the cap order, the federal judges who issued it will continue to oversee improvements to inmates’ medical and mental health care.

Weisberg says whatever the ruling, it’s unlikely to have much bearing on other states.

California’s prisons, he says, are unique. They’re the nation's biggest – and by some measures the most overcrowded.