California Prison Reform Plan to Feds, Battle Looms

By Caleb Groos on September 18, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The prison reform lite passed by California's legislature last week formed the basis of the plan California will submit today, as required, to a panel of three federal judges. The plan fslls woefully short of what the judges ordered. What happens next?

As previously discussed, years of litigation over prison conditions resulted in a federal court order in early August for California to find a way to trim its prison population by over 40,000 in two years in order to bring the state in line with the barest minimum of Constitutional standards regarding access to health care in prisons. Critically, the court found that drastic overcrowding was the cause of California's unconstitutional prison conditions.

Last week, California's legislature, after weeks of bickering and political posturing over who is tough on crime, passed legislation estimated to cut the prison population by 16,000.

Today, the state submits its court ordered plan to the federal judges. As the Sacramento Bee reports, the plan includes the 16,000 prisoner cut, plus another 2,500 prisoners to be sent out of state, 1,000 to private prisons and 7,600 to be housed in new facilities.

Still, the plan trims the head count in current prisons by just over 27,000 -- far short of the 40,000+ required by the court order.

Here are the most likely ways this could play out:

  • The court finds California's plan inadequate and in violation of its previous order, and proceeds to craft its own order for California to actually reduce the required number of prisoners (instead of simply ordering a plan);
  • The court orders California to modify and resubmit its plan; or
  • The court finds California officials to be in contempt of court. (As the Bee reports, this is highly unlikely, though a co-chief counsel for inmates involved in the litigation indicated he may pursue contempt proceedings.)

In any case, the fight looks likely to end up before the Supreme Court. As reported by the Bee, this was the aim of some California legislators, such as Republican state Senator George Runner, who said "I assume the court is going to find this totally inadequate. ... I hope they find it inadequate, reject it and then we appeal to the Supreme Court."

As we discussed previously, the Supreme Court appeared likely to accept the case once it's ripe. They refused to step in and stop California from having to submit a plan, but indicated they would take the case once the court issues a final order requiring actual prisoners be released.

This question will involve interpretation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (the PLRA). Specifically, for a federal court to issue a prisoner release order to cure inadequate prison conditions, the PLRA requires that those seeking such relief prove that prison overcrowding is the primary cause of the denial of a federal right.

The three judge panel found California's denial of medical and mental health care to prisoners to violate the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. If and when this fight goes before our highest court, the merits would likely come down to whether or not that denial of health care was primarily caused by overcrowding (as thinks the federal court) or caused more equally by a combination of multiple factors (as California argues).

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