Brown v. Plata

  • May 24, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Inimai M. Chettiar, Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Chettiar serves as national legislative counsel to achieve smart criminal justice reform in states across the country. She has published scholarship on the use of economic analysis to promote laws advancing social welfare.

    Yesterday’s Supreme Court opinion in Brown v. Plata is controversial only to those who do not understand the magnitude of the overincarceration epidemic in this country. The high court upheld an order mandating California to reduce prison overcrowding to remedy systemic constitutional violations. The opinion in no way mandates the blanket “early release” of prisoners; instead, it encourages the state to use prisons only when doing so would be cost-effective and increase public safety. It finds that California's prisons are so overcrowded that they violate the standard of decency required by the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

    Unfortunately, the Plata dissenters use alarmist language that would make readers believe Harold Camping predicted the Rapture a little too early. According to the dissenters, “three army divisions” of bloodthirsty “convicted felons” - “who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym" - will soon descend upon California’s neighborhoods, leaving behind “a grim roster of victims” with “terrible things sure to happen” to us all.  

    But in their over 30 pages of opinion, the dissenters neglect to mention several key facts.  Foremost, reducing prison overcrowding will actually lead to less crime and safer neighborhoods. Our extremist sentencing policies have bloated our prisons so severely that not only are they unsafe, unhygienic, and unconstitutional, but also excessively costly and actually a detriment to public safety. The majority notes (quoting former California Governor Schwarzenegger) that “’overcrowding causes harm to people and property, leads to inmate unrest and misconduct . . . and increases recidivism as shown within this state and in others.’” California’s communities must then absorb individuals returning from prison who are often more dangerous than when they left. Improving prison conditions makes us all safer.

  • May 23, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Giovanna Shay, an Associate Professor of Law at Western New England College School of Law

    Today in Brown v. Plata, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision affirmed a three-judge court’s order requiring the California Department of Corrections to reduce its prisoner population to within 137.5% of the design capacity of its facilities.  Plata makes clear that the restrictions placed on prisoner release orders by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) do not tie judges’ hands when they are faced with unconstitutional conditions that cannot be remedied by other means. 

    The California conditions described in the Plata decision were inhumane by any standard.  Justice Kennedy described them as “exceptional.”  Prisoners were housed in a system that was at 200% of capacity for over a decade.  Because medical and mental health systems could not function due to over-crowding, prisoner deaths were all too common. 

    The remedy in Plata was necessary.  However, the type of over-crowding described in Plata requires, not just conditions litigation, but a criminal punishment overhaul.  Simply put, California needs to lock up fewer people, as does our nation more generally. The Court describes various methods of reducing the prisoner population by releasing prisoners who are not a safety threat. This is a good goal, and in a time of budget crunch, one shared (at least in part) by others across the political spectrum (check out Right on Crime).

    But the big question is how to change our criminal punishment policies to shrink our nation’s network of prisons, the world’s largest.