Brown v. Plata 131 S. Ct. 1910 (2011)

A class-action challenge to severe overcrowding in California prisons brought under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA).  The suit alleged that overcrowding and resulting deficiencies in prisoner’s medical care violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Date of the Ruling: 
May 23 2011
United States Supreme Court
Type of Forum: 

The case was a consolidation of two class actions brought under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA), which allows prisoners to sue for violations of constitutional rights. California's prisons were designed to hold about 80,000 prisoners, but at the time of filing, the system held about 156,000. In both class actions, overcrowding was found to constitute an 8th Amendment violation because of a serious lack of access to basic medical care, with one case dealing specifically with prisoners with serious mental illness. After the state failed to make sufficient remedial efforts, a special three-judge federal court was convened to order reductions in the prison population. 

In 2009, after extensive fact-finding, this court ordered California to reduce the prison population to 137.5% of design capacity within two years (approximately 32,000 prisoners). California appealed to the Supreme Court arguing that the special federal court had erred in finding that crowding was the primary cause of the 8th Amendment violation, and that the state needs more time and flexibility to find solutions before ordering such a drastic reduction. 

The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision, finding clear evidence of the connection between overcrowding, severe deficiencies in medical care and the 8th Amendment. The decision considered how for years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons had failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs leading to needless suffering and death.  It was affirmed that the court-mandated population limit is necessary to remedy the violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy stated that California’s failure to provide basic medical care was “incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.”   

The Supreme Court also found that the special federal court gave “substantial weight” to any adverse impact of the order on public safety and had closely considered expert evidence that similar reductions in other states had not had a great adverse effect on public safety.

 Based on past failed remedial efforts and the severity of the violation, the Supreme Court was not persuaded that the state just needed more time to try its own solutions.

Enforcement of the Decision and Outcomes: 

In terms of enforcement, Justice Kennedy underscored that the reduction in population need not be achieved only by releasing prisoners early. Other means might include, new construction, transfers out of state and using county facilities. Several weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision, California passed AB 109 in response, which allocated $5 billion to a program of “realignment.”  Under the state’s realignment strategy, state prisons will continue to incarcerate offenders who commit serious, violent, or sexual crimes, but responsibility for low-level offenders will be shifted to the counties. Up to 30,000 state prison inmates could be transferred to county jails over three years. The overcrowding in California prisons has already been reduced, making it easier to provide health care and other programs to prisoners. (Email Interview with Don Specter, Executive Director of the Prison Law Office and advocate for the appellees in Brown v Plata, June 26th, 2015)

As per the three judge order, State officials in California had two years to comply fully with the order. The Supreme Court order stated that while the State did not ask for an extension of the deadline set by the aforementioned panel, the three-judge court has the authority and responsibility to amend its order as warranted by the exercise of sound discretion. In fact, as of spring 2014, the three-judge court has granted California's request for a two year extension of time to fully reduce prison overcrowding to the 137.5 percent level required by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Groups involved in the case: 

The Prison Law Office (A non-profit public interest law firm), Rosen Bien Galvan and Grunfeld LLP (law firm)

Significance of the Case: 

The case is significant for the breadth of the structural injunction (a court order used to compel public institutions to comply with constitutional requirements).  Both the majority and the dissent acknowledged the order was almost unprecedented, and may potentially expand the judicial system’s ability to award broad structural remedies.  The court reasoned that the judicial obligation to enforce constitutional rights may require a court to fashion a remedy that intrudes into the area of public administration and makes systemic change when a violation is entrenched and intractable.  According to one commentator, the extent of the injunction potentially exceeds any remedial order that the Court has ever issued. 

For prisoner’s rights activists, the case is also significant because of Kennedy’s powerful language regarding human dignity.

Moreover, this case is noteworthy since it is considered as much of a political statement as a legal one. The Court here opens up political space for prison reform by shining a spotlight on the appalling conditions in California’s prisons. While this case remains a significant step in securing the human rights of prisoners, this decision alone, will likely not be enough for effective amelioration of the harrowing conditions endured by prisoners. In the decision, Kennedy writes that, “Constitutional violations in conditions of confinement are rarely susceptible of simple or straightforward solutions. In addition to overcrowding the failure of California’s prisons to provide adequate medical and mental health care may be ascribed to chronic and worsening budget shortfalls, a lack of political will in favor of reform, inadequate facilities, and systemic administrative failures.” This would point at the need for a broad based political movement to push for much needed prison reform. Towards reinforcing this need for a political movement, it is to be noted, that this case also illustrates the limits of the judiciary’s authority to get at the heart of the problem—the overuse of incarceration as punishment for crimes.  California had the option of solving the overcrowding problem by increasing capacity and in large part it did so by renting space from private corporations, building additional housing units on existing sites and making a variety of crimes punishable by incarceration in the county jail.  However, to be fair, the State also increased good time credits, increased eligibility for parole to reduce the prison population and passed by initiative a law that changed many drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors thereby making those offenders ineligible for a prison sentence. (Email Interview with Don Specter, Executive Director of the Prison Law Office, and advocate for the appellees in Brown v Plata, June 26th, 2015)