Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Federal Appeals Court Orders California to Release 40,000 Inmates

A panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered California to reduce its prison population by 27% -- or 40,000 inmates -- over the next 2 years. The court held that overcrowding in the prison system imperils the health of the inmates and leads to one unnecessary death per week. As a result of massive overcrowding the state cannot adequately attend to the inmates' health needs, including mental health concerns.

Ruling Justified? Probably.
After reading the mammoth ruling -- 180 pages -- the court's decision looks quite solid, even though it sounds very dramatic on the surface. The litigation consolidates two separate cases involving illegal conditions in the prison system. One case began in 1990 and the other in 2005. In both instances, the record shows an almost complete lack of compliance by state officials and worsening conditions in the prisons over time. Also, the record demonstrates that judges pursued less invasive remedies in the past, and gave the state several opportunities to comply before ordering the release of inmates.

Furthermore, even though the state has resisted the release of inmates, a closer look at the record reveals a more complicated picture. For example, earlier this year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed releasing 27,000 inmates, but he abandoned the plan after victims' rights groups condemned it. Schwarzenegger has also publicly stated that overcrowding endangers inmates and prison staff. In 2006, he declared a "state of emergency" in the state prison system, observing that overcrowding causes "'conditions of extreme peril' that threaten 'the health and safety of the men and women who work inside [severely overcrowded] prisons and the inmates housed in them . . . .'" Accordingly, the court's ruling comports with prior opinions of the state's chief executive. This is not a clear case of a judicial invasion of the political branches of government.

The Structural Injunction Lives
Lawyers refer to this type of "massive" injunction as a "structural injunction" or "restructuring injunction" because it involves a series of orders, usually over the course of several years, that reform public institutions found to violate a constitutional or statutory provision.

Structural injunctions became popular during the late-1960s and early-1970s, as courts began implementing desegregation orders. Because of the inherent complexity of school systems and the flagrant, often violent, resistance to integration by many school districts, courts had to supervise school officials closely in order to ensure their compliance with the law. Although the desegregation cases popularized the structural injunction, this type of intense judicial involvement in public institutions took place in other complex settings as well, such as prisons, mental health facilities, foster care and hospitals.

Conservatives typically criticize structural injunctions, arguing that "activist" courts are exceeding the scope of their authority. Of course, conservatives also tend to disagree with the underlying legal theories in this cases, which typically involve allegations of civil rights violations. Liberals, on the other hand, who favor strong civil rights enforcement, have defended structural injunctions, arguing that courts are only responding to the foot-dragging by defendants and to the unavoidable complexity of the cases. In many instances, the toughest remedies come only after years of bad faith and noncompliance by state actors and after softer remedies have failed.

The Rehnquist revolution (which has curtailed civil rights law and remedies) and conservative legislation from Congress (like the Prison Litigation Reform Act) have reduced the structural injunction to a relic of the past. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit ruling is very "old school" (and surprising to me as a Remedies Law professor). This, however, does not make it a bad decision.

Final Take
California basically created this situation with its "tough on crime" antics that began in the 1970s and which became extremely popular once again in the 1990s. As the court opinion details, California's prison population has increased by over 750 percent since the mid-1970s. The state has repeatedly enacted longer sentences, and it has adopted a 3-strikes measure that mandates a life sentence after the defendant commits a third felony (even if the crime is shoplifting).

While voters strongly favor these laws, they do not want to pay for the consequences of having them in a society that enforces constitutional norms -- like freedom against cruel and unusual punishment. The chickens are merely coming home to roost in California.

The ruling advises the state to release nonviolent offenders, and I suspect that it will take this route, unless the ruling is reversed. And while commentators like Ross Douthat have argued that liberal policy has devastated California's economy, his (weak) thesis does not acknowledge the negative economic and social impact of conservative policies, such as the "tough on crime" measures that contributed to the expensive situation the state now faces regarding its prison system.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Hutchinson: Characteristically, the Ninth Circuit plays the fool once again, trifling with Californians's lives while refusing to take responsibility for its own actions. What would happen if Schwartenegger and the Legislature trooped into Alex Kozinski's chambers, tossed the prison keys onto his desk and said, OK, boss, run it yourself. For starters, you can break the scandalous prison guard contracts that cost Californians a giant barrel of money and corrupt the political system almost as effectively as the Indian gambling interests. Let the feds take on someone nearer there own size. Nope, not going to happen. Just as the federal bench overreached in busing Boston's school children in the 1970s, so they are chewing up California state government by bullying those who can't fight back. When the Ninth Circuit take on Mike Jimenez their actions will deserve respect. Not before.

By the way, do you count this as evidence that Texas is worse run than California? No? Wny not?

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Good morning, Greg. I suppose if Kozinski (as judge) violated the constitution in some gross way, then federal authorities could do something about it (not necessarily state). If he violated California law as a private citizen the state would have authority over him.

The opinion is very long -- even longer than some of my law review articles -- but you should read it. It details the long history of noncompliance. State officials cannot overrule a federal court. They can only appeal. I do not remember the opinion ever finding them in contempt. So the court acted in a very reserved fashion.

While you think this court overreached , the facts do not suggest this. You even think the courts overreached in Boston in the 1970s -- but you neglect to mention that Brown was decided two decades earlier. Such blatant and prolonged noncompliance warrants drastic measures.

Finally - didn't you read the last part of the essay? The law and order stuff is a conservative approach to crime. California was more overzealous in this than even Texas. So, this still does not demonstrate the perils of liberalism.

Jazzy said...

California has never regarded Federal law as its own. Thet have a history of noncompliance because they could care less about the ruling. The 3 judges gave them 2 years in 2006 and now they have given them another 2 years to comply. And if they don't, what? That's right, they'll get another 2 years to comply. This can go on forever with nothing being accomplished.

Elaina said...

Mr. Koster,

While CCPOA has exerted a certain influence over the years, it is currently NOT the drain on the California budget that most people believe. Far more is spent on keeping prisoners incarcerated for years and years as a result of the parole board's abuse of power. Far more is spent keeping prisoners incarcerated who are too old, sick or mentally ill to be any kind of threat to society. Far more is spent by keeping prisoners incarcerated for shoplifting or other petty "felonies" which are their third strike, etc. California has consistently resisted reform efforts and has brought this crisis on itself. Until it begins basing its operations on evidence-based research rather than fear and public opinion; until it recognizes that rehabilitation is not coddling, but rather a wise and thrifty investment in public safety (for every dollar spent on rehabilitation, 5 dollars are saved in the long run); until it starts employing behavior scientists to develop and evaluate rehabilitation programs rather than using custody personnel who have worked their way up; until it reforms the sentencing policies and reduces the population; and until there is a significant attitude change among the politicians, the public and a large majority of the employees, CDCR will only prolong the agony and continue to waste precious tax-payer dollars on programs and policies that are clearly ineffective and disastrous for the State's economy.

Elaina Jannell, Ph.D.
AFSCME Local 2620

liberal dissent said...

Politically this may help California pols; "hey, we didn't want to release these inmates but the Federal Courts made us."

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

LD: I agree. Even before the case reached the appeals court, the Gubenator had agreed to release 27k. He backed down after opponents applied political pressure. So, to some extent, the opinion gives him cover.

liberal dissent said...

(and obviously, I accidentally responded to this post rather than the current one linking to this one).

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Funny - I was pouring through the other post wondering where the comments were.

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