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U.S. Supreme Court to Review California Prison Population Reduction Orders

by John E. Dannenberg

On June 14, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court (USSC) agreed to review orders entered by a three-judge federal district court panel in California that would relieve overcrowding in that state’s prison system by requiring a reduction in its 172,000 prisoner population by 46,000 over the next two years. [See: PLN, Sept. 2009, p.36].

The USSC’s review caps two decades of litigation in the federal courts that culminated in a provision of the Prison Litiga-tion Reform Act (PLRA) that allows a three-judge panel to rule on alleged violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights, includ-ing issuing a “prison release order” under 28 U.S.C. § 3626(g)(4), subject only to an appeal to the Supreme Court.

In Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. CIV S-90-0520 LKK JFM P, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton found a substantive number of prisoners in the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) who suffered from mental illness were not receiving constitutionally adequate mental health care. Indeed, Judge Karlton was driven to provide relief based upon documented preventable suicides and conditions that exacerbated the pris-oners’ mental illnesses.

In Plata v. Schwarzenegger¸ U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. C01-1351 TEH, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson, after observing the rate of preventable deaths resulting from constitutionally inadequate medical treatment, and after ordering the CDCR to abate the constitutional violations to no avail, finally resorted to appointing a Receiver to take over the CDCR’s healthcare system. The Receiver, in turn, ordered massive upgrades to the state’s prison medical facilities and increases in staff pay to attract and retain qualified medical personnel.

When the CDCR failed to follow the orders of the Receiver and the federal courts – in part due to California’s financial crisis, which has led to a $20 billion budget deficit in the current fiscal year – a three-judge district court panel was con-vened that ultimately ordered a massive reduction in the state’s prison population. This was determined to be the only viable solution to overcrowding in the CDCR, which was the underlying cause of the continuing constitutional violations.

The district court rulings were anything but snap judgments. After years of litigation, involving numerous on-site visits by the judges to CDCR facilities, and after repeated orders attempting to judiciously prod state officials to take remedial action, the exasperated federal courts ran out of options and took charge. Even then they did so in a tempered manner, literally be-seeching the CDCR to take “baby steps” to implement the changes that even state prison officials agreed were needed.

However, deadline after deadline was met with inaction by the CDCR, which finally admitted it was simply unable to comply. In response, Judge Henderson appointed a Receiver and gave him authority to write checks on the state’s ac-count to get things moving. This resulted in measured improvement. Ancient and dilapidated clinical treatment areas – some lacking such basic necessities as running water – were remodeled. Staff vacancies were filled when mandated pay increases for medical employees were implemented. A new hospital was built at San Quentin State Prison, replacing the existing condemned building that had been constructed in 1884.

Still, progress was limited. Preventable deaths continued to occur; overcrowded housing areas in state prisons, such as converted gyms crammed with triple-bunks, were not closed as ordered; and the CDCR’s population remained at the 170,000 level – hovering near 200% of design capacity. Although California lawmakers authorized the transfer of more than 10,000 pris-oners to out-of-state private prisons, overcrowding problems persisted.

The only solution was to unilaterally reduce the state’s overcrowded prison system. This could be done by building more prisons, which California cannot afford, or decreasing the prisoner population to constitutionally acceptable levels. The three-judge panel determined the CDCR should operate at no more than 137% of design capacity, which translated to a reduction of some 46,000 state prisoners.

Not surprisingly, Governor Schwarz–enegger found this solution to be politically unappetizing, and continued to fight the court orders. After losing at every judicial level for decades, it now comes down to a showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court. The USSC’s order granting review of the three-judge panel’s decision stays any prison population reductions for six to twelve months. The Su-preme Court formally framed the issues it will consider as follows:

• Whether the three-judge court properly determined that overcrowding was the “primary cause” of continuing viola-tions of prisoners’ constitutional right to adequate medical care, and that no remedy existed other than issuance of pris-oner release orders pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3626;

• Whether the system-wide prisoner release orders issued by the three-judge court are “narrowly drawn, extend no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and [are] the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right” in compliance with the PLRA; and

• Whether the three-judge court properly gave “substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety or the opera-tion of a criminal justice system” in ordering a reduction of the state’s prison population by 46,000 prisoners.

Since the three-judge panel had carefully parsed the language of the PLRA, and had applied evidence obtained through extensive evidentiary hearings and trials, the Supreme Court’s review amounts to a de novo examination of the case below. The USSC’s ruling will be significant, as this will be the Court’s first interpretation of the three-judge panel provision of the PLRA.

The prisoners in the Coleman and Plata cases have been ably represented by the indefatigable efforts of the Berke-ley, California-based Prison Law Office (PLO) and the law firm of Rosen, Bien and Galvan. PLO director Donald Specter commented “There was always a danger” that the district court panel would be reversed by a conservative majority of re-sults-oriented Supreme Court justices. “But the three-judge panel did exactly what Congress told them to do in these situations, and the three judges are also doing what the governor has tried to [do] in each of the past three years” in terms of reducing the CDCR’s population and expenditures, Specter observed.

Putting it bluntly, ensuring constitutional prison conditions takes a back seat to California politicians who fear the pub-lic backlash that would attend reducing the state’s prison population. The USSC is insulated from such political retribution, and hopefully will send a message to all prison systems in the country that failure to provide adequate medical care to prisoners due to overcrowding, resulting in preventable deaths, violates the U.S. Constitution.
The Supreme Court will issue a ruling in this case by June 2011. See: Schwarzenegger v. Plata, U.S. Supreme Court, Docket No. 09-1233.

Additional source: San Francisco Chronicle

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Related legal case

Schwarzenegger v. Plata