University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
California Systemic Prison Cases: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Order to Reduce Population
May 17, 2012
The California prison system—the largest state system—incarcerated about 160,000 people on any given day in 2010. It is subject to a large number of system-wide cases in which courts have found serious constitutional violations or violations of prior settlement agreements. The most costly of these cases, Plata, concerns medical care, which has at this point been turned over to a court-appointed receiver. It has become apparent that solving the constitutional problems will cost billions of dollars.

In three of the cases—Plata, Coleman (mental health care), and Armstrong (disability discrimination)—the plaintiffs asked for imposition of a population cap on the California system, as a constitutionally necessary remedy. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, such a cap may be entered only by a specially constituted three-judge district court. Judge Wilken stayed consideration of the motion in Armstrong, but such a panel was convened to decide the issue in Plata and Coleman. The three-judge court found that a population cap necessary to cure the constitutional violations that have long existed with respect to the provision of medical and mental health care. Considering the strict requirements of the Prison Litigation Reform Act for entry of a population cap, the court found (as required by the statute as a prerequisite to such an order) that overcrowding is the primary cause of these violations. It approved a population limit of 137.5% of design capacity, and it ordered the state to submit a plan as to how best it can reduce the current prison population from its then-extant level of more than 190% of design capacity. No immediate release of prisoners was ordered. Rather, the reduction in prison population of over 40,000 was required to be accomplished by the state over a two-year period, through a combination of various measures previously recommended by numerous state commissions and committees, including through the early release of some non-dangerous prisoners or the diversion to other forms of custody or supervision of other individuals, such as technical parole violators who are currently returned to prison for short periods.

The PLRA also requires courts considering population caps to assess the impact on public safety. The court found that the overcrowding in the prisons led to "criminogenic" conditions, which resulted in more crimes being committed by former prisoners and an increase in the recidivism rate. It also determined that, with adequate safeguards and improved rehabilitation and re-entry programs, the state could ensure that the order would result in an increase in public safety.

California appealed as of right to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the Order violated the Prison Litigation Reform Act; the order was stayed pending that appeal. On May 23, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the three-judge panel decision. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Kennedy and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, the Court resolved the jurisdictional and substantive issues in favor of the Plaintiffs, most significantly affirming the order to cap the prison population at 137.5% of design capacity within two years of the decision.

On remand, the state has taken a number of steps to bring down population, in paritcular, altering the parole system. See the individual case pages for much more detail.

Relevant case(s) include: