A panel of three federal judges yesterday essentially ordered the State of California to reduce its prison population by as much as 57,000 people, because crowding is causing violations of prisoner rights. This doesn’t mean that wardens will be releasing thousands of hardened criminals back onto the streets, but it does raise questions of how to do it. In its ruling, the court accepted certain possible solutions, but rejected the one obvious solution of building more prison space.
The panel was made up of U.S. District Court judges Thelton Henderson and Lawrence Karlton, as well as Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit. These judges are known for their left-leaning policies, so it’s hardly surprising, perhaps, that they accepted and rejected the solutions that they did. Increasing prisons is not widely regarded as a liberal position.
Although the panel only issued a “tentative ruling” in Coleman v. Schwarzenegger (link from the L.A. Times), this is probably going to be the final ruling, which is why they were confident enough to issue it formally. Unless it’s overturned on appeal, California is going to have to think up and enact some creative methods of carrying out the order, so the judges wanted to give the state time “to allow them to plan accordingly.”
The case, actually two cases, were brought by prisoners who alleged that crowding — not overcrowding, just crowding — was causing violations of their constitutional rights. These aren’t new cases — one has been in the remedy stage since 1995, and the other since 2002.
The dispute now was not over whether crowding exists, or whether care is unconstitutionally inadequate. Gov. Schwarzenegger issued a state of emergency in 2006, still in effect today, because overcrowding was putting prisoners’ and guards’ health and safety at risk. So the fact of crowding couldn’t be in dispute. Also not in dispute is a previous court ruling that the prisons were not providing constitutionally adequate medical and psychological care.
The issue here was whether the crowding was the main reason for the failure to provide adequate medical and psychological care. And if so, then what to do about it.
The court found that there aren’t enough clinical facilities, resources or personnel to accommodate all the inmates who needed them. The risk of the spread of infectious disease is also enhanced by bunking prisoners in gyms and other spaces not intended to be used for housing. Lots of experts testified that crowding was the primary cause of the problems.
That being decided, California wanted a chance to fix the problem without decreasing the prison population. California showed that, under monitoring by a receiver and special master during the past 11 years, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had already made significant improvements in conditions. So they asked for more time to fix these particular problems.
The court said no. They’ve had 11 years, and haven’t fixed the problem yet, so the court didn’t trust the monitors to fix it now. And anyway, “many of their achievements have succumbed to the inexorably rising tide of population.” Furthermore, California has no money to spare for new facilities, resources and personnel. Remedies for these cases have been tried since 1995, for 14 years now, and any future efforts of the receiver and special master could take many more years to have effect. The court felt that any further continuation of the already lengthy deprivation of constitutional rights would be wrong.
The court couldn’t think of any other relief that would work, other than reducing the prison population. Because scores of remedial orders had so far failed, “we are at a loss to imagine what other relief short of a prisoner release order a court could grant.”
So back to the question of how to do it. The court suggested various methods, such as “parole reform,” which we guess would mean changing parole rules, so that violators don’t necessarily go back to prison. Or “good time credits,” which could include both granting greater time off for good behavior, and letting more bad behavior count as good behavior. Or “evidence-based programming intended to reduce recidivism,” which simply means implementing services that are scientifically proven to actually reduce subsequent criminal behavior, as opposed to trying things that just sound good.
The court felt that building more prison space, the one obvious solution, was not something the court could order California to do, because it “may not be within the court’s general powers under the PLRA.” The PLRA, 18 U.S.C. §3626(g)(4) defines a “prisoner release order” as anything that has the effect of reducing or limiting the prison population. So the examples above would work. But one that merely reduces crowding — the problem to be solved here — doesn’t count, because it doesn’t reduce the number of prisoners.
We think that’s probably wrong. Building more prison space would solve the problem complained of. It may not be within the scope of the PLRA, but that’s not the sole authority that the court has. It has equitable power to order the state to do whatever works to stop the constitutional violations.
The court went on to say that California’s inmate population was about 200% of intended capacity, but reducing that population to about 120% to 145% would be sufficient. The court felt that this was the proper balance between concerns of public safety and prisoner rights.
The state immediately announced that it will appeal, of course. This will be one to watch, as pretty much every state is operating prisons beyond their design capacity, and fixes need to start happening soon. What happens here will influence how other states deal with the problem.