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“I don’t blame the courts for stepping in to try to solve the health care crisis that we have, the overcrowding crisis that we have, because the fact of the matter is, for decades the state of California hasn’t really taken it seriously.”

— Arnold Schwarzenegger

“I fear that today’s decision will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong.”

— Justice Samuel Alito

Dissenting in Brown v. Plata

In 1884 William Washington Cole began circus performances that he called “new colossal shows.” Touring the nation on train cars and performing under the big top he competed with the likes of P.T. Barnum for the ticket sales of the circus going American public. When he died in 1915 he was worth more than five million dollars.

The circus, which is now one of the few that still performs in tents, was eventually sold, but in the 1950s it began a new circus tradition- the clown car. Driving into the tent in a small vehicle, a ridiculous number of clowns would pile out of the car- seemingly endlessly- as entertained circus-goers marveled at the number of clowns who fit into such a small space.

The State of California has a similar problem. It doesn’t involve clowns and it doesn’t involve cars, but it does involve a huge number of people in a space that was not intended to hold them. Unfortunately for California, the space is its prison system and the people crammed into it are felons.

California’s prisons are designed to hold just under 80,000 inmates. Since 2000 they have been running at nearly 200% capacity and according to a study conducted by the Pew Center, they held 169,000 people as of January 2010. Only Texas has a larger prison population (just barely) and the only other state with more than 100,000 inmates is Florida at 104,000. For comparative purposes, Ohio’s prison system held 51,606 prisoners as of January 2010.

Two federal class action lawsuits were filed by or on behalf of California inmates in 1990 claiming that they were not receiving or were receiving inadequate mental health and medical care as a result of prison overcrowding. After twelve years of litigation and negotiations, a special master appointed by the court provided a report that said that the situation had actually gotten worse since the lawsuit was filed.

As a result a new lawsuit was filed in 2006 under the name of inmate Marciano Plata, who had been the named plaintiff in the prior lawsuit. The cases were brought under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, passed by Congress to govern exactly this type of lawsuit. Under the terms of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, severe prison overcrowding could be solved by a court order to reduce the prison population, but that court order could only come from a three-judge federal district panel and not from a single federal judge presiding alone.

It should be noted that the cases were not concerned with the comfort or amenities offered to the prisoners. They weren’t about whether there was cable television or whether double-bunking of beds was necessary. The cases established that not only were the prisons running at 200% of capacity but that medical and psychological positions were understaffed by up to 50%, that initial screening of prisoners for medical conditions including contagious diseases could not be completed in a timely manner and that prisoners had died because of delays in emergency medical care that stretched for as long as five weeks and a failure to diagnose everything from heart attacks to cancer.

During his time as Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger had repeatedly stated that the prison system was being crushed under its own weight but because of California’s extreme budget difficulties, little could be done. In August of 2009 the three judge panel ordered the state to reduce its prison population to no more than 137% of capacity and outlined five specific methods to achieve that goal. The State appealed that order.

On Tuesday of this week the United States Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, upheld that decision, finding that there was no reasonable dispute as to the existence of the overcrowding or the medical results of that overcrowding and further finding that reducing the prison population was the only available solution to the problem. As a result, the State of California now has two years (it can ask for an extension) to reduce the prison population in accordance with the order.

The full text of the Supreme Court decision can be read on their website, supremecourt.gov. Various documents, including all of the briefs filed in the case can be found at scotusblog.com.

David Hejmanowski is a Magistrate and Court Administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.

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