Eighth Amendment: Cruel and Unusual Punishment & the Prison Litigation Reform Act

Coleman v. Brown and Plata v. Brown involve Eighth Amendment violations in California state prisons due to inadequate physical and mental care provided to prisoners.  In 1995, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California found in Coleman that there was a systematic failure to deliver necessary care to the class of seriously mentally ill persons in California prisons.  The District Court appointed a Special Master to oversee a remedial plan.  Twelve years later, however, the Special Master reported that, following a period of slow improvement, the state of mental health care was again deteriorating, due to increased overcrowding.  In 2001, the plaintiffs in Plata argued that insufficient care was being provided to the class of California prisoners with serious medical conditions.  The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California appointed a Receiver to oversee remedial efforts after the state failed to comply with a remedial injunction.  After then-Governor Schwarzenegger’s declaration of a state of emergency in the prisons in 2006, the Coleman and Plata plaintiffs moved their respective District Courts to convene a three-judge court pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PLRA”), arguing that a reduction in prison population is the only means of remedying the continued constitutional violations in California’s prisons.  In 2009, the three-judge court ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity within two years. 

In Brown v. Plata (09-1233), the Supreme Court split 5-4, holding that the remedial order to release prisoners is consistent with the requirements and procedures set forth in the PLRA.  Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy argued that the three-judge court had jurisdiction to order the release of prisoners because, in accordance with the PLRA, the respective District Courts had initially ordered a less intrusive form of relief, and had granted California a reasonable time to comply with the orders.  The Court concluded that the three-judge court had based its prisoner release order on clear and convincing evidence that crowding was the primary cause of the ongoing Eighth Amendment violations, and that no other relief would effectively remedy the situation.  A basis for this last conclusion was the “political and fiscal reality behind this case;” the majority was clearly unpersuaded that California would be able to follow through on alternative proposals involving the expenditure of state funds.  The majority also held that, although the remedy might have the potential for adverse effects on public safety and would result in positive collateral effects for prisoners not part of the aggrieved class, the order was narrowly tailored and did not extend further than necessary. 

Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, wrote a strongly-worded dissent, arguing that the decree for system-wide reformation exceeds the boundaries set by the PLRA.  He argued that the class of plaintiffs must comprise persons with individually-viable claims, and that a narrowly drawn remedy must extend no further than to correct the constitutional violations suffered by particular individuals.  Justice Scalia also contended that the release order was a vastly expanded “structural injunction,” which places judges in the position of engaging in very broad empirical predictions, taking them beyond the traditional judicial role and allowing them to “indulge incompetent policy preferences.” 

In a separate dissent, Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, argued that the decree should be reversed because it was based on errors and beyond the three-judge court’s authority.  Justice Alito contended that the three-judge court improperly refused to consider highly relevant new evidence pertaining to current prison conditions.  He also argued that the three-judge court erred by rejecting other plausible and effective remedies, giving inadequate weight to the population reduction order’s impact on public safety.