Vol. 26 No. 11- U.S. Supreme Court Orders Release Of Approximately 44,000 State Inmates


To:                 All Police Chiefs and Sheriffs

From:             Martin J. Mayer, Esq.


May 23, 2011

Today, the United States Supreme Court upheld the order of a three judge federal court, in the case of Coleman/Plata v. Schwarzenegger (now Brown v. Coleman/Plata), which had mandated that the state prison system reduce its population to no more than 137.5% of design capacity within the next two years. The order had been stayed pending the appeal by the State of California to the Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that, the three-judge courts conclusion that the prison population should be capped at 137.5% of design capacity was not clearly erroneous and, furthermore, that the three-judge court did not err in providing a 2 year dead-line, but the three-judge court has the authority, and responsibility, to amend its order as warranted by the exercise of sound discretion. It is important to note that the constitutional violations consist of the failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care the overcrowding, in and of itself, is not the violation.


The firm of Jones & Mayer has served as counsel for the Law Enforcement Interveners, consisting of 37 elected sheriffs, 15 municipal chiefs of police and 15 chief probation officers, since the three judge panel was created. We were actively involved in pre-trial efforts by a court appointed settlement referee to develop alternatives to the release of inmates; we represented the interveners at trial before the three judge panel; and were actively involved in the development of the brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court urging the acceptance of the case for review. All involvement by the firm, for the past three years, has been on a pro bono basis


A class action lawsuit was filed over 20 years ago, Coleman v. State of California, alleging that prisoners with serious mental illness were not receiving minimal, adequate care. A Special Master was appointed to oversee remedial efforts ordered by the court and, 12 years later, reported that mental health care of prisoners had deteriorated due to overcrowded conditions in the state prisons.

In 2001, a second class action suit was filed, Plata v. State of California, claiming constitutional deficiencies in the providing of medical care to prisoners. The State conceded that the deficiencies which existed did, in fact, violate the Eighth Amendment of the constitution and stipulated to an injunction which mandated remedial efforts be implemented. By 2005, no changes had been implemented and the court appointed a Receiver to monitor the efforts.

In 2008, the Receiver reported that, still, no significant changes had occurred and problems continued to be exacerbated caused by continued overcrowding of the facilities. At the request of the plaintiffs, the two cases were consolidated and the judges granted the request that a three judge panel be instituted pursuant to the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) in order to compel reductions in the prison population.


Before issuing such an order, the panel was required to conduct hearings and make findings of facts, by clear and convincing evidence, that overcrowding was the primary cause of the violation, that no other relief will remedy [the] violation, and that the relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary . . ., and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation. The three judge panel was also required to give substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety . . . caused by the relief.


The Supreme Court noted that the Coleman and Plata judges were correct in convening a three judge court. The Court found that the prior appointment of a Special Master in Coleman, and the stipulated consent decree and injunction in Plata, were designed to remedy the constitutional violations and that the State was given adequate time to accomplish that goal. The Court ruled that contrary to the States claim, [the PLRAs] reasonable time requirement did not require the District Courts to give more time for subsequent remedial efforts to succeed.

The Supreme Court found that there was a solid basis to doubt that additional efforts to build new facilities and hire new staff would achieve a remedy, given the ongoing deficiencies recently reported by both the Special Master and the Receiver. The three judge court did not err in finding that crowding [was] the primary cause of the violation. . . .

The Court stated that there were high vacancy rates for medical and mental health staff and that the State has not budgeted sufficient staff to meet demand; and that even if vacant positions could be filled, there would be insufficient space for the additional staff. Such a shortfall contributes to significant delays in treating mentally ill prisoners . . . . In addition, said the Court, there are also backlogs of up to 700 prisoners waiting to see a doctor for physical care. Crowding creates unsafe and unsanitary conditions that hamper effective delivery of medical and mental health care.

The Court also stated that the three judge court did not err in providing a 2 year deadline for relief, especially in light of the States failure to contest the issue at trial. The State has not asked this Court to extend the deadline, but the three judge court may grant a motion to extend the deadline if the State meets appropriate preconditions designed to ensure that the plan will be implemented without undue delay.


The State, and the interveners, argued, among other things, that the three judge court did not consider conditions as they existed at the time of the trial but, rather, only considered evidence from the past. The Supreme Court disagreed and stated that contrary to the States claims, the three judge court properly admitted, cited, and considered evidence of current prison conditions; the court admitted recent reports on prison conditions by the Receiver and Special Master; and both parties presented testimony related to current conditions.

Furthermore, it was permissible for the three judge court to conclude that overcrowding was the primary, but not the only, cause of the violations, and that reducing crowding would not entirely cure the violations. The Court said that had Congress intended to require that overcrowding be the only cause, the PRLA would have said so.

The Court rejected claims by the State that the transferring of inmates out of state or build[ing] itself out of this crisis would be effective in curing the problem. [W]ith no reduction, any remedy might prove unattainable and would at the very least require vast expenditures by the State. The State asserts that these measures would succeed if combined, but a long history of failed remedial orders, together with substantial evidence of overcrowdings deleterious effects on the provision of care, compels a different conclusion here.


As to the arguments raised by the State that releasing such a large number of inmates, in a relatively short period of time, would have a negative effect on the publics safety, both the three judge court and the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.

The Supreme Court stated that the three judge court gave substantial weight to any potential adverse impact on public safety from its order. The PLRAs substantial weight requirement does not require the court to certify that its order has no possible adverse impact on the public. Here . . . the court found that various available methods of reducing overcrowding good time credits and diverting low risk offenders to community programs would have little or no [negative] impact on public safety. . . .

Furthermore, the [three judge] court left state officials the choice of how best to comply and was not required to second guess their exercise of discretion. Developments during the pendency of this appeal, when the State has begun to reduce the prison population, support the conclusion that a reduction can be accomplished without an undue negative effect on public safety.


Get ready! There is no doubt, between the States plan for realignment of obligations from themselves to the locals, and this Supreme Court decision, that there will be an influx of state prisoners into local jurisdictions. How many will be returned to any particular county will depend on where the inmates came from. All inmates are returned to the counties from which they resided when sentenced to state prison.

There is no further court action which can be taken in an effort to reverse this decision the Supreme Court was the final step. However, as noted above, the Court did allow for a request to be made to the three judge panel for an extension of time, but included the requirement that the State would have to show that positive changes will be made in a timely fashion.

This turn of events, although anticipated for the past several years, will obviously require cooperation among all government entities, not just law enforcement. Efforts must be made to plan for the arrival of these persons but, hopefully, that will include the awareness that the primary impact will be on law enforcement since, historically, there is a 70% recidivism rate among those released from state prison. Unfortunately, neither the three judge court, nor the Supreme Court, are obligated, nor chose, to provide any advice or guidance on how to deal with the impact of their rulings that is up to local government.

As always, if you have any questions regarding his matter, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 1400 or via e-mail at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice. The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute an attorney-client relationship.