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

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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.


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.


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 panel’s order, the population reduction is necessary because California’s 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 Court’s 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 plaintiff’s 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 California’s 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 California’s 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 state’s continued failure to address the severe crowding in California’s prisons would perpetuate a criminogenic prison system that itself threatens public safety.”

Briefs and Documents

Merits Briefs

Amicus Briefs

In Support of the State/Appellants to Reverse the Overcrowding Limit Order

In Support of the Prisoners/Appellees to Affirm the Overcrowding Limit Order

In Support of the Neither Party

Direct Appeal Jurisdiction-Stage Documents

Previous Media Coverage

Friend of the Court Contact Information

Counsel for the Prisoners/Appellees

  • 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, Kirkland & Ellis, Washington, DC, 202 389 5000 (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).