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Plata and Coleman Showdown in California

by John E. Dannenberg

A three-judge federal court tightened the noose around the neck of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in April 2013 when it issued a lengthy order denying a motion by state officials to delay or modify the court's prison population reduction order that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2011. See: Brown v. Plata, 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011) [PLN, July 2011, p.1]. The court also denied the CDCR's request to end the federal receivership over the state's prison mental health care. The sockdolager came when the court threatened the CDCR and California Governor Jerry Brown with contempt if they did not follow the court's directives after decades of litigation.

On April 5, 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton issued a 68-page order in Coleman v. Brown, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. CIV S 90-520 LKK/JFM (PC) – the 23-year-old case that resulted in a special master being appointed by the court to oversee mental health care in CDCR facilities – denying the defendants' motion to "terminate all relief in this action, vacate the Court's judgment and orders and dismiss the case."

Judge Karlton first noted that the state is currently under an order to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity by the end of 2013. He said he could not entertain a motion to terminate the relief ordered by the three-judge court or to vacate the population reduction order. Nor could he modify the prison population reduction order, as the defendants asked, because the state had not reached the required population cap. Judge Karlton therefore turned to the defendants' motion to terminate mental health care oversight.

Despite adding more treatment facilities and staff, the court noted that the CDCR was still deficient in providing care for some 32,000 mentally ill prisoners. Against the state's protestation that it had spent more than $1 billion on new facilities and devoted $400 million a year to treatment for mentally ill prisoners, court-appointed experts reported that the CDCR continues to have major problems – including a suicide rate that worsened in 2012 to 24 per 100,000 population, far exceeding the national state prison average of 16 suicides per 100,000 population. [See: PLN, April 2013, p.22].

Judge Karlton wrote, "Systemic failures persist in the form of inadequate suicide prevention measures, excessive administrative segregation of the mentally ill, lack of timely access to adequate care, insufficient treatment space and access to beds, and unmet staffing needs." He further said the state could not be trusted to continue making improvements if court oversight was lifted. "There is overwhelming evidence in the record that much of defendants' progress to date is due to the pressure of this and other litigation."

Of significant concern to Judge Karl-ton was the fact that four of the CDCR's experts had interviewed mentally ill prisoners without having the prisoners' attorneys present. Those experts included Drs. Joel A. Dvoskin, Jacqueline M. Moore and Charles L. Scott, and Steve J. Martin, Esq.

The lapse was such a major breach of professional ethics that the court discarded the experts' opinions that formed the core of the state's argument. Without them, Judge Karlton said he had no choice but to dismiss the state's motion to terminate the case due to lack of evidence. However, his ruling also indicated he would have come to the same conclusion even had the opinions from the state's experts been allowed.

Then, on April 13, 2013, the three-judge court over Plata v. Brown, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. C01-1351 TEH and Coleman v. Brown issued a stinging 71-page Opinion and Order denying the defendants' motion to vacate or modify the court's prison population reduction order, and threatening to hold Governor Brown and CDCR officials in contempt if they did not produce a plan to remove 9,000 prisoners from the state's unconstitutionally overcrowded prison system. "They will without further delay be subject to findings of contempt, individually and collectively," the court warned, ominously.

The three-judge court wrote that Governor Brown and other state officials "will not be allowed to continue to violate the requirements of the Constitution of the United States.... At no point over the past several months have defendants indicated any willingness to comply, or made any attempt to comply, with the orders of this court," adding, "[i]n fact, they have blatantly defied them." The court gave the state 21 days to submit a plan that would meet the prison population reduction target of 137.5% of capacity by the end of the year, and suggested that a reduction in the aging lifer population could be accomplished without undue risk to public safety and that more generous good-time credits would quickly reduce overcrowding.

State officials responded, predictably, by appealing the three-judge court's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, with a notice of appeal filed on May 13, 2013. But staring down the barrel of the federal court's contempt gun, they also submitted a plan to reduce the state's prison population by the December 31, 2013 deadline – but only by 7,000 prisoners, not 9,000 as mandated by the court. Even CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard described the plan as "ugly."

The plan includes paying county jails with available capacity to house additional state prisoners, continuing the use of out-of-state private prisons and filling newly-constructed prison beds in the state medical facility in Stockton and mental health facility at the Men's Colony prison in San Luis Obispo (see related article in this issue of PLN). Additionally, low-level offenders will be increasingly moved into conservation camps, where, during California's high fire-danger season, they will be in high demand. Certain minimum-security prisoners would receive extra good-time credits.

Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office and lead attorney in the lawsuit that resulted in the court-ordered CDCR population cap, said he expected the Plata and Coleman orders to be upheld, calling them "airtight." He added, "The decision demolishes any argument the governor has to get out from under the prison population cap."

Sources: Associated Press, Los Angeles Times,

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