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Federal Judges Convene Three-Judge Panel to Consider “Prisoner Release Orders” to Remedy California’s Prison Overcrowding; Upheld on Appeal

Federal Judges Convene Three-Judge Panel to Consider "Prisoner Release Orders" to Remedy California's Prison Overcrowding; Upheld on Appeal

On July 23, 2007, two United States District Court judges in the Northern District and Eastern District of California simultaneously issued orders finding that overcrowding appeared to be the root cause of continuing constitutional violations of California state prisoners' rights to adequate medical and mental health care. The judges further ordered that under the provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), they were convening a three-judge court that would permit them to issue "prisoner release orders" to remedy the constitutional violations.

In Plata v. Schwarzenegger, U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson granted the prisoner plaintiff class' motion to create the panel due to clear and convincing evidence that overcrowding was causing irreparable harm by preventing even the court-appointed healthcare Receiver from bringing medical care in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) into constitutional compliance. Such a finding was both necessary and sufficient under the PLRA, 18 U.S.C. § 2626(a)(3), to permit the court to take this drastic step.

The court carefully analyzed § 3626(a)(2)(A) to circumscribe its powers to only such cases where the court had already tried--and failed--through earlier orders to obtain less intrusive relief to cure the demonstrated deprivations, and where the defendants had had a "reasonable amount of time" to comply with the prior orders. The court cited § 3626(a)(3)(E) to limit such sweeping release actions to those cases where clear and convincing evidence demonstrated that overcrowding was the primary cause of the violation, and no other relief would provide a remedy.

The court then reviewed the long and frustrating history of the Plata case, observing that notwithstanding the progress since the Receiver was appointed, "that fact does not render irrelevant the previous five years of complete and utter failure by Defendants to cure the constitutional deficiencies in their delivery of medical health care to prisoners. Where life and death hang in the balance, courts must act to ensure that constitutional violations are cured sooner rather than later."

After considering the Receiver's most recent reports, which found that unless prison overcrowding was abated it was doubtful he could fix the CDCR's healthcare violations in less than 7-10 years (if at all), the court found that the prerequisites of § 3626(a) had been met.

However, citing 18 U.S.C. § 3626(g), the court was careful to explain the phrase "prisoner release order," holding, "It does not necessarily mean an order requiring the release of inmates; instead the PLRA broadly defines the term as including 'any order, including a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunctive relief, that has the purpose or effect of reducing or limiting the prison population, or that directs the release from or nonadmission of prisoners to a prison.'"

The court rejected as premature the amicus briefs proffered by the prison guards' union and a citizens' budget watchdog group, since those briefs addressed the merits of actual release by the panel rather than the narrow issue of the prerequisites for convening the three-judge panel. Accordingly, the court granted the plaintiffs' motion, notified the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2284(1), and recommended that the case be assigned to the same panel as the one approved in a companion prison mental healthcare case. See: Plata v. Schwarzenegger, USDC CD CA, Case No. C01-1351-TEH (July 23, 2007).

The mental healthcare case, Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, has been ongoing since 1990. Notwithstanding the appointment of a Special Master to aid in bringing the CDCR into compliance with more than 55 court orders to ensure that prison mental healthcare meets constitutional standards, Senior Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, who presides over the Coleman case, found that even under the most charitable of evaluations the CDCR was no more than two-thirds of the way toward meeting its obligations. The shortfall was in manpower, intensive treatment, bed space and programming. As a result, and with a current mental healthcare caseload of 33,000 prisoners, the court found this level of unmet needs was "unconscionable."

Most importantly for the purpose of considering the plaintiffs' motion to convene a three-judge panel in Coleman, the court relied upon its Special Master's reports that all the deficiencies were ultimately related to overcrowding. That is, if there were one-third fewer mental health patients in prison, the current staffing levels, bed space and programming would be more closely approximate to constitutionally acceptable standards. The court observed that even under the CDCR's best projections, the overall prison population would remain essentially stagnant at about 175,000 for the next several years, thus portending no relief by any other means than court-ordered releases.

Also considered by the court was the CDCR's claim that under recently enacted California legislation (AB 900), which would appropriate $7.4 billion to build 53,000 more prison beds by 2014, overcrowding would cease when prisoners were dispersed among the expanded facilities. The court found this argument unpersuasive because merely adding more beds absent a sufficient numbers of guards, and with significant understaffing among prison mental health care professionals, would provide a bleak prognosis for curing constitutional deficiencies. Moreover, it found this mismatch between concept and performance unacceptable even though AB 900 gave "high priority" to building 8,000 medical and mental health care beds.

Accordingly, the court "with extreme reluctance but firm conviction" found that overcrowding in the CDCR was "preventing the delivery of constitutionally adequate mental health care ... and that some form of limitation on the inmate population must be considered," and thus granted the plaintiffs' motion to convene a three-judge panel to consider appropriate prisoner release orders. See: Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, USDC ED CA, Case No. CIV 2:90-cv-00520-LKK-JFM (July 23, 2007).

The CDCR quickly appealed the court's order for appointment of a three-judge panel to the Ninth Circuit. On September 11, 2007, the appellate court summarily dismissed the appeal, because the order of appointment was not a final order subject to appeal.

The CDCR had tried obliquely to block or delay federal takeover of California's prison system via the appeal. The state had hoped to leapfrog any federal court remedies to the state's prison overcrowding problem by commencing implementation of its $7.4 billion prison expansion plan. For political reasons, Gov. Schwarzenegger opposes the early release of any prisoners to ease overcrowding, even parole violators (California's current prison population of 172,000 includes over 40,000 parole violators).

State lawmakers are also incised about the possibility of mass prisoner releases, even though California's prison overcrowding crisis is directly related to sentencing laws and funding priorities established by those same lawmakers. Republican state representatives have even created a website, titled Keeping Californians Safe, that decries the judicial panel's consideration of a prison population cap. According to the site, which uses inflammatory language and graphics, as well as outright lies (a disclaimer on the site notes its content is not accurate), "Imposing a cap could lead to the early release of as many as 40,000 inmates, including dangerous felons who are serving time for serious crimes."

But the mere act of forming a three-judge panel for the purpose of considering taking control over a state prison system does not, by itself, inure any prejudice to the state. Indeed, the authority to form such a panel is statutory under the PLRA.

The U.S. District Court judges who oversaw litigation related to California prison healthcare issues for decades merely declared the need to have a trial on the question of a federal court takeover, the Ninth Circuit found. Only when that trial is complete, and judgment is entered, will appellate jurisdiction ripen. At that time either party may appeal any issues, including procedural questions relating to the panel's formation. See: Coleman v. Schwarzenegger (9th Cir., Case No. 07-16361) and Plata v. Schwarzenegger (9th Cir., Case No. 07-16383) (September 11, 2007), 2007 WL 2669591.

On September 24, 2007, the three-judge panel, which includes Appeals Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt and District Court Judges Karlton and Henderson, held its first hearing to consider imposing a population cap on California's severely overcrowded prison system. The panel issued a 7-page order on October 10, 2007 that established a briefing and trial schedule. Under Phase I, the plaintiffs have the initial burden of proving that a population cap is the least intrusive approach the courts can take to remedy the state's prison overcrowding, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(3)(E); if successful, the panel will then determine the exact nature and scope of the population cap under Phase II of the proceedings.

Third-party intervenors, including district attorneys, sheriffs and Republican state lawmakers, would only be allowed to intervene in Phase II after the need for a population cap is established. Such intervenors are allowed to take part in the proceedings pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(3)(F). The one exception for an intervenor to participate in Phase I of the panel's deliberations was for the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association (CCPOA), the union that represents the state's prison guards. The CCPOA has expressed support for imposing a prison population cap.

On February 8, 2008 the three-judge panel, on a motion for reconsideration, agreed to permit the intervenors to participate in all stages of the proceedings subject to certain procedural limitations. See: Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, USDC ED CA, Case No. CIV S-90-0520 and Plata v. Schwarzenegger, USDC ND CA, Case No. C01-1351; 2008 WL 397295.

Ultimately, insurmountable prison overcrowding could lead the federal courts to simply assume complete control over the CDCR, thereby truncating decades of legal acrimony. Indeed, in Armstrong v. Davis, USDC ND CA, Case No. 4:94-cv-02307-CW, another U.S. District Court Judge, Claudia Wilken, is considering whether to institute a three-judge panel to remediate the plight of disabled CDCR prisoners.

Other sources: San Francisco Chronicle, National Law Journal

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