Supreme Court Affirms Historic Coleman and Plata v. Schwarzenegger Decision
Justices Vote 5-4 to Affirm Three-Judge Panel Ruling on California’s Extreme Prison Overcrowding
For more information, contact:
- Paul Clement, Bancroft PLLC, (202) 234-0090
Michael Bien, 415-433-6830, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Donald Specter, Prison Law Office, 510-280-2621
- Contacts for Friend-of-the-Court Organizations
- Photographs of California Prison Overcrowding
- Video Exhibits
- Other Trial Materials
- Supreme Court Briefs
- Friend-of-the-Court Briefs
- Previous Media Coverage
MAY 23, 2011 SUPREME COURT DECISION
The Supreme Court of the United States issued a 5-4 decision on May 23, 2011, in a case from California that tests whether federal courts can invoke effective remedies when prison overcrowding becomes so extreme that prisons can no longer provide even minimally humane medical and mental health care. In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Court ruled that the three-judge panel acted correctly within the strict limits of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act in ordering California to bring its extreme prison overcrowding under control. The Opinion is accompanied by three separate dissents. The argument transcript is now available, as is the audio recording.
SETTING THE STAGE
With California prisons at the breaking point and after over 20 years of litigation, a special three-judge panel ordered the State of California to come up with a plan to reduce prison overcrowding within two years so that prisoners can obtain life-saving medical and psychiatric care. Contrary to popular misconceptions, this case is not about opening the prison gates and releasing thousands of prisoners. The State of California can meet the overcrowding limits through its own common-sense plans that have been tested in other states, and that reduce prisoner recidivism, prison overcrowding, and improve public safety.
THE LOWER COURTS RULING
On August 4, 2009, a federal three-judge panel ordered California to address its prison overcrowding crisis and to submit a plan to reach a prison population cap of 137.5% of design capacity in two years. According to the three-judge panels order, the population reduction is necessary because Californias prisons house twice as many prisoners as they were designed for, making the prisons unsafe for prisoners and staff. The Court found that prisoners cannot get life-saving medical and psychiatric care in these overcrowded prisons.
The Courts order will not result in the immediate early release of thousands of prisoners. The population can be reduced safely by using methods proposed in the past by Governor Schwarzenegger, including reforming the parole system, providing earned credits for participation in prison programs and making technical changes in the sentencing laws. Many states (such as Texas, New York and Kansas) and counties (such as Los Angeles) have reduced the population of their correctional facilities while experiencing a decrease in the crime rate.
The overcrowding case is a consolidated proceeding in Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, a class action involving inadequate mental health care in California prisons that commenced in 1990, and Plata v. Schwarzenegger, a class action focused on inadequate medical care in the prison, that was filed in 2001. During the 20 year period that these cases have been litigated, the federal courts have issued more than 70 orders that the state has ignored or violated. Despite years of other remedial steps such a increasing clinician salaries, changing procedures for delivering medical and mental health care, and the takeover of medical care by a receiver, the life-threatening problems in the prisons were not being fixed, leading to plaintiffs decision to seek relief for overcrowding.
Plaintiffs successfully demonstrated in a two-month trial that concluded in February 2009 that the extreme levels of overcrowding in Californias prisons is the primary cause of the ongoing unconstitutional medical and mental health care in the prisons, and that a limit on prison population was the only remedy that would address these life-threatening and dangerous conditions.
A federal law that requires judges to give substantial weight to public safety also allowed over 140 local officials and legislators as party-interveners to address the impacts that a prison population reduction would have on local communities. The surprising result was that many of the interveners agreed with plaintiffs that the status quo of Californias dysfunctional prisons and revolving door parole system is itself a threat to public safety. Numerous correctional experts, public officials, as well as California prison officials, all agreed that there were various safe and proven methods available to reduce prison overcrowding, such as parole reform, probation reform, and enhanced credits, and that these methods would enhance public safety and save the State money.
The Court found that: the evidence is clear that the state can comply with our order in a manner that will not adversely affect public safety. Indeed, the evidence is clear that the states continued failure to address the severe crowding in Californias prisons would perpetuate a criminogenic prison system that itself threatens public safety.
Briefs and Documents
- Brief of Appellee Marciano Plata, et al.
- Brief of Appellee Ralph Coleman, et al.
- Brief of Appellee Intervenor California Correctional Peace Officers Association
- Opening Brief of State’s Intervenors
- Opening Brief of Appellant Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Reply Brief of Appellant Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Reply Brief of State’s Intervenors
In Support of the State/Appellants to Reverse the Overcrowding Limit Order
- Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce in Support of Appellant
- Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Support of Appellant
- States of Louisiana, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia in Support of Appellant
In Support of the Prisoners/Appellees to Affirm the Overcrowding Limit Order
- Corrections and Law Enforcement Personnel in Support of Appellees
- American Bar Association in Support of Appellees and Correctional Officer Intervenors
- Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and 30 Criminologists in Support of Appellees
- American Public Health Association, American Nurses Association, American Association of Public Health Physicians, Academy of Correctional Health Professionals, and the Society of Correctional Physicians in Support of Appellees
- American Psychiatric Association, California Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, California Psychological Association, American Academy of Psychiatry And The Law, Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Forensic Mental Health Association of California, National Alliance On Mental Illness, and NAMI-California in Support of Appellees
- Prison Fellowship, Aleph Institute, American Friends Service Committee, California Council of Churches, Friends Committee on Legislation of California, General Synod of the United Church of Christ, Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, National Association of Evangelicals, National Council of Churches, Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association, Progressive Jewish Alliance, Sojourners, Union for Reform Judaism, and Unitarian Universalist Association in Support of Appellees
- American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Penal Reform International/The Americans in Support of Affirmance
In Support of the Neither Party
- Motion for Leave to File Out of Time Amicus Curiae Brief and Brief for J. Clark Kelso, Receiver for Medical Healthcare for the California State Prisons in Support of Neither Party
Direct Appeal Jurisdiction-Stage Documents
- Opinion below | Order to reduce the prison population (United States District Courts for the Eastern District and the Northern District of California)
- Jurisdictional statement
- Motion to dismiss or affirm by Plata appellees
- Motion to dismiss or affirm by Coleman appellees
- Motion to dismiss or affirm by intervenor California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association
- Consolidated opposition to motions to dismiss or affirm
- Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, CONTACT: Anthony Barkow, Anthony.Barkow@nyu.edu
- Forensic Mental Health Association of California, CONTACT: David Meyer, 818-257-1221, email@example.com
- American Bar Association, CONTACT: Anne Nicholas or Stephanie Ortbals-Tibbs, 202-662-1090
- American Public Health Association, CONTACT: David Fouse, 202-777-2501, firstname.lastname@example.org
- American Psychiatric Association, CONTACT: Eve Herold, 703-907-8534, email@example.com
- American Nurses Association, CONTACT: Maureen Cones, 301-628-5123, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, CONTACT: Emily McKee, 202-467-5730, email@example.com
- National Association of Evangelicals, Sarah Kropp, 202-789-1011, firstname.lastname@example.org
- American Friends Service Committee, CONTACT: Laura Magnani, 415-565-0201, Ext. 11, email@example.com
- Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, CONTACT: Shakeel Syed, 310-384-7791, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Unitarian Universalist Association, CONTACT: Daisy Kinkaid, 617-948-4386, email@example.com
- Donald Specter, Prison Law Office, Berkeley, CA, 510-280-2621 (Counsel for the Plata medical care class and the Coleman mental health class).
- Paul Clement, Bancroft PLLC, Washington, DC, 202-234-0090 (Counsel for the Coleman mental health class).
- Michael Bien, Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, San Francisco, CA, 415-433-6830 (Counsel for the Coleman mental health class).