Twelve years had passed since the last court ruling on overcrowding. During that time, no improvement had occurred. Living conditions were described as “toxic,” and a lack of treatment space hindered even the most rudimentary care. The evidence supported the conclusion that an order outlining other remedies would not provide effective relief. For example, transferring detainees to county facilities would not constitute an appropriate and less restrictive alternative.
The panel noted the presentation of substantial evidence that prison populations could be reduced in a manner that did not increase crime to a significant degree. Witnesses testified that a 130 percent population limit would allow the State of California to remedy the constitutionally inadequate provision of medical and mental health care services for prisoners in need.
The Court held that the authority to order release of prisoners as a remedy to cure a systemic violation of the Eighth Amendment is a power reserved to a three-judge district court, not a single-judge district court. Once a three-judge court has been convened, the court must find additional requirements satisfied before it may impose a population limit. The first of these requirements is that crowding is the primary cause of the violation of a Federal right.
In short, the Court upheld the dictates panel that enforced the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 requiring that rulings for which it forms the basis must be narrowly construed and extend no further than necessary to correct the violation of a federal right. Furthermore, such rulings must be the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation. When determining whether these requirements are met, courts must give substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety or the operation of a criminal justice system. Overall, the Eighth Amendment means something...even in California.