America's prisons, like many of our public schools, reflect our country's most shameful and profound failings. This week the U.S. Supreme Court takes on one aspect of our nation's love affair with incarceration.

In Schwarzenegger v. Plata, the state of California has challenged an order issued by a three-judge federal court under the Prison Reform Litigation Act, which requires the state to reduce its prison population to deal with overcrowding. The court found that overpopulation is directly responsible for the failure of the California system to provide inmates with adequate physical and mental health services. California argues that the prison reduction order issued by the three-judge court under the PRLA goes beyond the scope of the statute and infringes on the state's power.


This case is likely to play out before the court and in the media as a battle over states' rights — in this case, the right of the state of California to manage its own prison system — and against the encroachment of federal judges supplanting the judgment of elected leaders with their own version of appropriate public policy. Indeed, 18 states have joined in a brief supporting the state of California and making this very argument.

But there's much more at stake in this case than the age-old "state sovereignty versus federal courts" story. In fact, the federal court's prison reduction order in this case is something of a last resort — imposed only after eight years in which the state of California, while conceding the unconstitutional overcrowding in its prison system, has failed to reduce its prison population. The Plata suit stems from an action filed back in 2001. The state conceded in 2002 that prison overcrowding threatened the constitutional rights of prisoners. 

Three years later, the state had failed to impose reforms it had agreed to in any of its prisons. As a result, Judge Thelton Henderson assigned a federal receiver in 2005 to oversee reforms to the California prison system after finding that although the court had given the state "every opportunity" to make reforms, the state department of corrections "lacked medical leadership" and had "a culture of non-accountability and non-professionalism," resulting in threats to the health of prisoners. 


Built for 80,000 prisoners, the California corrections system houses twice that number of inmates. In 2006 the first receiver's report determined that "until the … overpopulation experienced system-wide is effectively addressed," it would be impossible to remedy the inadequate delivery of health care services in the state's prisons. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself declared a Prison Overcrowding Emergency. Driven by the chronic overcrowding problem and by the pinch of the poor economy that has left many states short of funds to maintain bloated prison populations, Schwarzenegger even proposed a plan in 2009 that would have reduced the prison population by 36,000.

By then, the court's order was based on factual findings that prison overcrowding is a direct cause of the state's failure to provide adequate physical and mental health services to prisoners, resulting in the death of one prisoner every eight days. But the California Legislature failed to take up and enact a responsible plan that would have reduced the prison population. There's no political gain to enacting reforms that would release prisoners and create more-humane conditions for those who remain incarcerated.

We are reaping now what we've sown in punitive policies imposed as part of the "war on drugs." We're more likely to use rules of baseball (California's three-strike policy, for example) than correctional expertise in determining our sentencing rules. Backtracking years later on the 100-to-1 ratio between federal crack and powder-cocaine sentences is regarded as a victory instead of a condemnation of the wrongheaded criminal justice policies that arbitrarily impose long and indefensible sentences burdening the lives of prisoners, the communities they come from, and our state and federal coffers.


The fact that overcrowding undermines the provision of adequate health care to prisoners and exacerbates negative mental health outcomes among the incarcerated has been well-known for decades. It's also well-established that prison overcrowding endangers corrections officers and other personnel who work in prisons. In an extraordinary move, the organization representing the 35,000 correctional officers in the California system filed a brief on the side of the Plata plaintiffs, arguing that overcrowded conditions make it impossible for corrections officers to "facilitate the provision of constitutionally adequate care" to prisoners in the system. 

Yet states throughout the country have plowed forward, imposing draconian sentencing regimes without ensuring adequate funding or facilities to meet the needs created by policies that favor warehousing convicts over providing drug-treatment, educational and vocational-training programs — along with services such as family support, job creation, community policing and mental health — that are well-documented and effective means of reducing crime and recidivism.

California and Texas lead all of the states in the size of their prison populations. Texas' prison population doubled in just a five-year period in the mid-1990s. The proliferation of private, for-profit prisons is not an answer but instead creates even more grotesque incentives to continue our mass-incarceration policies.


States' rights come with responsibilities. The condition of our prison system is a reflection of irresponsible state and federal policies that have often been politically expedient, but fiscally and morally unsound. The orders of the federal court requiring reductions in the California system were based on the expert conclusions of correctional professionals and the state's failure to muster the political will to fulfill its obligation.

The federal court did not order the "release" of 46,000 prisoners, as is frequently reported, but ordered that the state achieve levels of reduction by a variety of means, including early release, prison transfers and new prison construction, that would bring the population to within 137.5 percent of the prison's designed capacity. Still overcrowded, but less so. And yet even this measure may be regarded by the Supreme Court as an impermissible intrusion into what California regards as its right to manage its affairs.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor of law at the University of Maryland and a regular contributor to The Root.