By Ryan Thornton

           In January of 2009, a federal three-judge panel in California determined that overcrowding of the State’s prison population was the primary cause of Eighth Amendment violations of prisoners’ rights to adequate health care. Plata v. Schwarzenegger, No. 3:01-cv-01351-TEH (N.D. Cal. 2009). The court issued a Prisoner Release Order, pursuant to the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3626, ordering the release of approximately 46,000 inmates – a reduction of more than one-fourth of the state’s prison population.

            The order came amidst a corrections “crisis,” where expert panels released reports detailing the unusually overcrowded prison population, the high rates of recidivism in California (which contains the nation’s largest prison system) and the conditions of California prisons with regard to medical care and mental health care. The judges found the reductions would save the financially struggling state $803 million to $906 million per year in prison costs, and cite to studies claiming California’s prison system is too crowded to provide a constitutionally acceptable level of medical and mental health care. The state asserts the federal judges exceeded their authority in issuing the order. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in June, recognizing that this case directly bears on the role (and authority) of judges in the criminal justice system.

            The issues to be decided in this case are whether: 1) the three-judge court had the authority to determine that crowding was indeed the primary cause of such conditions and that no remedy existed other than issuing the Order, 2) the Order was “narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and [is] the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right,” (18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A)), and 3) the court gave enough weight to any adverse impact on public safety or the operation of the criminal justice system when it ordered the reduction of the prison population.

            Simply stated, does the court’s order requiring California to reduce its prison population to remedy unconstitutional conditions in its correctional facilities violate the provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act?

            On November 15, 2010, the Supreme Court scheduled November 30, 2010 as the date for oral argument in Schwarzenegger v. Plata, No. 09-1233. There are separate groups of inmates involved, thus the attorneys for each group asked the Court to evenly divide argument time to allow different perspectives to be aired. Although the Court denied the specific request, it added 20 minutes to the total argument schedule and left it up to the prisoners’ lawyers to decide how the presentations should be divided.