Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Supreme Court Upholds California Prisoner Release Order, 5-4

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For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.

Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. — (2011)

Today a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court affirmed a federal court order requiring California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, joined by justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Scalia wrote a dissent joined by Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito wrote a dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts.

You can download the full SCOTUS decision as well as other documents from the case here, from SCOTUSblog. The initial order was issued in August 2009 by a special three-judge panel of judges, as required for prisoner release orders by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. I tweeted some highlights from the opinion and dissents here, at Twitter.

The Kennedy opinion is notable, actually, for a relative absence of Kennedy-style flowery rhetoric. Instead, it focuses on the concrete details of suffering documented over the past 20 years of litigation over the California prison system — complete with a photo appendix. It seems like the lawyers at the Prison Law Office (no relation to the Prison Law Blog!) did an excellent job impressing upon the Court the severity of California’s overcrowding crisis. It probably also helps on that score that Kennedy is from California (and Breyer, too, whose brother is a federal judge in California).

I’ll try to read the opinions more closely later in the week and provide more detailed analysis. I’ll also do a roundup later in the week of notable commentary. In the meantime, here’s a roundup of initial news reports:

For an introduction to the California prison system, see my December 2010 post “Truly Appalling.” Here are some of my other earlier posts on this case and related matters:

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