Supreme Court Moves States Away from Mass Incarceration

The Supreme Court recently denied California’s petition to delay the federal three-judge panel’s order to reduce its prison population by an additional 9,600 prisoners by the end of 2013.

August 7, 2013

Last week, the Supreme Court denied California’s petition to delay the federal three-judge panel’s order to reduce its prison population by an additional 9,600 prisoners by the end of 2013. Punitive sentencing policies drove the state to exponentially large prison populations with little check from the Supreme Court, but thankfully it appears the Court is no longer willing to wait for the states to fix the problems on their own.  This is a welcome and necessary development in the battle to reduce mass incarceration in the United States.

For decades, California has publicly struggled to manage its exploding prison population.  Between 1980 and 2000, the state’s prison population increased from 22,000 inmates to 170,000 inmates. At the same time, California did not increase its prison capacity to match its growing prison population, creating systemically inadequate prison conditions. 

Decades of civil rights litigation to correct inadequate prison conditions culminated in the 2011 Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata requiring the state to downsize its prison population to 137.5 percent of total capacity in two years. The Court’s decision required the Golden State to reduce its prison population by approximately 46,000 prisoners.  

Despite significant reductions in California’s prison population since 2011— the state accounted for 51 percent of the nation’s reduction in total prison population in 2012 and 70 percent in 2011 — the state is still operating significantly overcapacity. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have become resistant to complying with the federal mandate.

In January 2013, Governor Jerry Brown declared that the state no longer had an overcrowding problem, despite its failure to meet the capacity requirements mandated by the courts. The state followed up with petitions to the federal panel and then to the Supreme Court seeking an end to federal oversight and attempting to block  further mandates to reduce its prison population. The lower court rejected all motions, indicating that the reductions weren’t enough to satisfy constitutional requirements.

With the Supreme Court’s rejection of Governor Brown’s petition, the Justices again demonstrate that change is coming in the context of mass incarceration. Refusing to delay the order suggests that the Court may not consider California’s full appeal in the coming term. Moreover, this refusal signals that a decisive majority of the Court is willing to go beyond mere words to ensure revitalization of its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence concerning prison populations.