Brown v. Plata

PETITIONER: Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Governor of California, et al.
RESPONDENT: Marciano Plata, et al.
LOCATION: Prison Law Office

DOCKET NO.: 09-1233
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 563 US 493 (2011)
GRANTED: Jun 14, 2010
ARGUED: Nov 30, 2010
DECIDED: May 23, 2011

Carter G. Phillips - for the appellants
Donald Specter - for the appellees

Facts of the case

The Prison Law Office in Berkeley, Calif., filed a class-action lawsuit in April 2001 on behalf of Marciano Plata and several other prisoners, alleging that California prisons were in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bans "cruel and unusual punishment." Following a lengthy trial, a special panel of three federal judges determined that serious overcrowding in California's 33 prisons was the "primary cause" for violations of the Eighth Amendment. The court ordered the release of enough prisoners so the inmate population would come within 137.5 percent of the prisons' total design capacity. That amounts to between 38,000 and 46,000 inmates being released.


Does a court order requiring California to reduce its prison population to remedy unconstitutional conditions in its correctional facilities violate the Prison Litigation Reform Act?

Media for Brown v. Plata

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 23, 2011 (Part 2) in Brown v. Plata
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 30, 2010 in Brown v. Plata

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 23, 2011 (Part 1) in Brown v. Plata

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This case arises from serious constitutional violations in California's prison system.

The violations have persisted for years.

They remain uncorrected.

Now, this is a direct appeal to this Court from a three-judge District Court.

And the District Court's order directs California to remedy two ongoing violations of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.

And those violations are the subject of two federal class actions.

The first case is Coleman versus Brown, and that involves prisoners with serious mental disorders.

Plata versus Brown involves prisoners with serious medical conditions.

And the order of the three-judge court that we're reviewing here applies to both.

The appeal turns largely on whether the order complies with the statutory provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a congressional act, enacted in 1995.

The specific provision to be consulted for the case, which contains many of the phrases that the Court examines, is 18 U.S.C. 3626.

And that section contains limitations on the issuance of orders that require release of prisoners to remedy constitutional violations.

One of these requirements is that the order be issued by a three-judge court.

The Court today issues a lengthy opinion.

It determines that the order of the three-judge court does meet all the statutory requirements.

The order leaves the choice of means to reduce overcrowding to the discretion of state officials.

But absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfers, or other means, the State will be required to release prisoners before their full sentences have been served.

The required reduction could be as high as 46,000 prisoners.

The State has already reduced the population by 9000 persons during this appeal.

Further reductions need not be accomplished in an indiscriminate manner.

The State may employ measures that will mitigate the impact, including good-time credits and diversion of low-risk offenders to community-based programs.

The population reduction potentially required is nevertheless of unprecedented sweep and extent.

A mistake and a premature release of even one prisoner can cause injury and harm.

And the release of prisoners in large numbers is a matter of undoubted, grave -- grave concern.

Yet so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations.

For years, the medical and mental health care provided by California's prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements.

In 2006, the suicide rate in California's prison was nearly 80% higher than the national average for prison populations.

Wait times for mental health care range as high as 12 months.

Prisoners suffering from physical illness also receive severely deficient care.

And the record documents numerous instances of delay and neglect leading to suffering and -- and even death.