California’s Unconstitutional Prison Overcrowding to Continue for Two More Years



An exhibit from the Supreme Court case showing overcrowding in California prisons. See more photos here.


The judges responsible over California’s prison overcrowding problem have given the state two extra years to reach their maximum of 110,000 prisoners.

In 2011, the Supreme Court declared California’s prison conditions unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment.  The case was brought by prisoners who claimed that overcrowding was leading to substandard physical and mental health care.  Conditions were deplorable; for example, Justice Roberts noted in his majority opinion that 54 prisoners were forced to share a single toilet.

While California has made some progress—at one point prisons were at almost twice their capacity—the state still has to move approximately 10,000 more prisoners before it reaches the Supreme Court mandated goal.  This extension means that thousands of people will have to suffer for another two years in unconstitutional conditions.

Although the judges’ decision means two more years of overcrowding, there were some positive aspects to the opinion.  They are requiring the state to reduce the prison population by 1,000 prisoners by the end of June and are barring the state from increasing the number of prisoners in out-of-state facilities—a tactic the government has used in the past to deal with overcrowding. While this means that the number of prisoners housed out of state will not rise, it still allows inmates to be transferred out of state beds that become open due to release or transfer between prisons.  

The real problem with California’s prison overcrowding is that the state and the judges are focusing on the wrong solution.  Governor Jerry Brown’s budget for this year included $500 million for building new prisons but only $200 million for programs designed to help people coming out of prison.   If you’re interested in learning more about the importance of sentencing reform in dealing with overcrowding, this New York Times piece is a great read.

The state has also agreed to consider forming a commission on penal reform, which includes mandatory sentencing.  Unfortunately, this agreement is not legally binding.  The state can decide not to form the commission and as of this writing, no progress has been made towards its creation.

Please write to Governor Brown and urge him to form the commission and start reforming mandatory sentencing.  His contact information can be found here.