Courts and the Penal State: Lessons from California's Decades of Prison Litigation and Expansion
California Journal of Politics and Policy. Volume 5, Issue 2, Pages 252–265, ISSN (Online) 1944-4370, ISSN (Print) 2194-6132, DOI: 10.1515/cjpp-2013-0012, April 2013
14 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2013
Date Written: April 2013
The Supreme Court’s 2011 Brown v. Plata decision may mark a turning point in the history of mass incarceration in California and nationwide. Between the mid-1970s and 2009 the California prison population grew absolutely and relative to population every year, expanding more than any other large state and continuing to grow even after much of the rest of the country had begun to stabilize or even shrink prison populations. Since the court injunction that was upheld in Brown v. Plata, however, the state has begun to shrink its population at one of the fastest paces in history and is also experimenting with changes in its pro-imprisonment penal policies. However a look at the parallel history of prisoners’ rights litigation and mass incarceration in California, particularly the Toussaint v. McCarthy case that took place between 1976 and 1991, shows that the two developed together and that the state’s increasingly uncivilized and degrading prisons reflected a political culture of defiance to constitutional rights developed reactively to litigation. Will Brown v. Plata play out any differently? The article suggests some reasons why today’s decisions may be more effective in overcoming the state’s hostile penal culture than in the past.
Keywords: mass incarceration, prisoners’ rights, uncivilized punishments, prison reform litigation, penology, Brown v. Plata
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