Saturday, August 8, 2009

Plata/Coleman Decision Analysis: Part I

Here are some thoughts regarding the Plata/Coleman decision; they are by no means systematic or exhaustive.

First, I should probably mention that my "simple math" estimations from the previous post were not so simple, and as it turns out, somewhat exaggerated. Based on the most recent data on the California prison population (as of July 29, 2009)The Prison Law Office calculates the order to e calculate the reduction as 40,000 to a level of 110,000. The Order says at page 37, fn 35:

In this opinion and order, we will hereafter consider only figures and percentages relating to the CDCR's thirty-three in-state adult prison institutions. We do not consider camps, community correction centers, or Department of Mental Health state hospitals, all of which also house CDCR inmates. It is the thirty-three in-state adult prison institutions that are the subject of the Governor's Prison Overcrowding State of Emergency Proclamation and were the focus of the evidence at trial before this court. All references to "system" and "systemwide" encompass only those thirty-three adult institutions.

In these institutions, the data shows population of about 150,000 and a capacity of 80,000. 80,000 times 137.5%= 110,000. The reduction would thus be 40,000. Which is about 12,700 inmates less than the population under the Governor's proposed reduction plan.

Moving on to the decision itself, it is probably useful to learn a bit about the legal framework. This is not the first population reduction order in the history of prison litigation, and the panel cites cases from the 7th and 11th circuits, in which population reduction was deemed to represent "the proper balance between the duty of the district court to remedy constitutional violations and the right of the State to administer its prison and parole systems". However, since those decisions, Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3626, which raised the bar for providing relief in prison conditions cases.

The PLRA has two sets of requirements for relief: requirements regarding all prison-conditions-related litigation, and requirements that apply specifically to population reduction orders. The latter order - which can only be given by a three-judge panel - requires the court to find, by clear and convincing evidence, that --
(i) crowding is the primary cause of the violation of a Federal right; and
(ii) no other relief will remedy the violation of the Federal right.

In addition, as with all other prison litigation, the situation must satisfy the "needs-narrowness-intrusiveness" standard, that is, "[p]reliminary injunctive relief must be narrowly drawn, extend no further than necessary to correct the harm the court finds requires preliminary relief, and be the least intrusive means necessary to correct that harm." The court must also take public safety into account, and "give substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety or the operation of a criminal justice system caused by the preliminary relief".

The Plata/Coleman panel finds that all of these requirements have been satisfied; the next post will elaborate.

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