What Has Happened Since the Supreme Court Ordered California to Reduce Inmate Population

In 2006, the out-of-control overcrowding in state prisons hit the roof. The thirty-five facilities built to house about 85,000 inmates held about 160,000 inmates at one point, causing prison administrators to house inmates in gymnasium and activity rooms.

This population problem sparked several class-action lawsuits with inmates claiming a violation of their Eighth Amendment right – and in many cases, a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

In the first class-action suit of 1990 (Coleman v. Brown), a trial court judge found the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in violation of inmates’ constitutional right to be protected from cruel or unusual punishment – a violation caused by overcrowding. The Department, of course, appealed the case and made a federal case out of it.

The outcome was that the federal court upheld the initial lower court ruling of violation of inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights. The overcrowding meant an insufficient staff to inmate ratio and overwhelmed infrastructure. Thus, inmates received subpar mental health care screening, delayed access to care, poor medication management, and in some instances, involuntary medication.  

Flashback to The Three-court-judge Order in 2009 (Plata v. Brown)

The ruling of the federal court in Coleman v. Brown was a permanent injunction relief mandating the state and involved defendants, including the Department of Corrections, to reduce the prison population over two years.

Suffice to say that this ruling failed to have the desired effect. Although the state achieved temporary relief under an appointed special master, remedial efforts eventually proved ineffective to manage the ballooning population and stress on prison infrastructure.

A second heating point came in the federal class-action lawsuit, Plata v. Brown. Here, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed an order by a special three-judge federal court requiring state officials to reduce the prison population. California had to maintain a 110,000 inmate population or 137.5 percent of the capacity of correctional facilities in California.  

Following the ruling, the Golden State took active steps towards taming the raging inmate population. The criminal justice reform plan was to meet the court order, improve sentencing, and save taxpayers $1.5 billion by 2015-16. It did improve sentencing conditions but did not save taxpayers money. Instead, the cost grew to three times the former expenditure.

The Public Safety Realignment Act

Governor Jerry Brown signed the Public Safety Realignment Act into law in 2011. The Act effectively transferred the custody of non-violent non-serious offenders to counties and made them responsible for parole violators. The result was a 41% reduction in new incarcerations. The raging overcrowding quietened, and prison infrastructure heaved a sigh of relief as 28,300 inmates left the system.  

However, by transferring the custody of inmates to counties that had to beef up their facilities, California had to spend some 2.25 billion dollars between 2011 and 2014. By 2016, the California Department of Corrections had a budget of $10.1 billion. Extra budgetary expenditure for the corrections system also rose to the tune of $1 billion annually, which California used to help counties implement sentencing alternatives and handle the influx of prisoners. Another $2.2 billion went to the construction of county jails.

Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a government watchdog on prison spending, criticized the move as unsustainable and called for an end to California’s policy of mass incarceration instead.        

In its defense, California pinned the rising cost on the court order and the cost of providing medical care to inmates. California constructed the California Healthcare Facility for inmates who needed prolonged inpatient medical care, intensive mental health services, and prescription medication. On closer examination, however, experts attributed the rising cost to prison staff and remunerations.

Before realignment, the California correctional system had a staffing formula of hiring one correctional officer for every six inmates. When the prison population ballooned, it had hired more staff. And then it failed to cut down prison jobs as the inmate population reduced. The corrections department cited that a sharp reduction in personnel could leave facilities understaffed. In lieu of this, it proposed a standardized model that allowed unionized prison staff to keep some 4000 jobs.

Brown, plagued by criticism of wasteful spending, mass incarceration, and failure to reach a population threshold, proposed a new law to California residents. After several reviews, voters passed the California Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016.

The California Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016

California Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act had these objectives:

  • Protect and enhance public safety
  • Reduce wasteful spending on prisons
  • Prevent federal courts from interfering in the state’s prerogative to release prisoners
  • Emphasize rehabilitation, especially for juveniles
  • Transfer the decision to try a juvenile in an adult court to judges instead of prosecutors.

Under the Act, inmates could accrue good-behavior credits and exchange credits for sentence reduction. Inmate participation was viz-a-viz taking courses to earn educational credits, engaging in self-help and volunteer activities, and rehabilitation. Ultimately, California sought to reduce recidivism, reducing sentencing under the three-strike law and ultimately prison population. The program worked until the pandemic of 2020 struck, forcing the Corrections Department to accelerate inmate release. This time, it intends to release 75,000 inmates.

The Decision To Release 76,000 Inmates and Resistance

Effective May 1, 2021, 76,000 inmates became eligible for release following temporary emergency regulations that accelerated the Good Conduct Credit (GCC) program. Although it will be several months before all eligible inmates leave the system entirely, the new rule seeks to reduce the inmate population to the designed capacity.

However, the move by the Gavin Newsom administration has come under attack by officials within the criminal justice system. On May 13, 2021, district prosecutors recently filed a petition to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The objection was that the emergency regulations, although temporary, could significantly affect public safety by shortening the stay of thousands of severe and violent offenders. Prosecutors argue that since California voters passed the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016, the same voters must have a say before the Newsom administration implemented drastic regulations.

Why Can We Expect To Happen?

The worries about public safety are valid. Given how fiercely officials have opposed the regulations, one can expect another federal lawsuit. However, such a lawsuit would be counter-productive given the provision of the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 to prevent federal courts interfering in the state’s prerogative to release prisoners.