A close look at the Court and the California prison crisis

Last month, the Supreme Court denied a petition from California to further delay an order from a special federal court that the state finally comply with a four-year-old injunction to dramatically reduce the population of its prisons.

350px-Supreme_Court_US_2010The original order in 2009 was for California to address problems of extreme overcrowding, by reducing the population by 46,000—so that the prisons would be at “only” 137.5 percent of the capacity they were designed for.  As The New York Times reported, “The order is the largest state prison reduction ever imposed by a federal court over the objection of state officials, legal experts said.”

The special federal court made the order after years of the state’s refusal to address its prison problems, because “the medical and mental health care available to inmates in the California prison system is woefully and constitutionally inadequate, and has been for more than a decade” and because “the unprecedented overcrowding” which was “almost double” prison capacity had created “conditions of extreme peril” that threaten “the health and safety of the men and women who work inside [severely overcrowded] prisons and the inmates housed in them. . . .”

Since the Supreme Court first upheld that order in 2011 – in a 5-4 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the wretched conditions were causing “needless suffering and death” and took the extraordinary step of including photographs to illustrate what he meant – California has reduced the population in state prisons by moving prisoners to other kinds of facilities.

But it has also challenged the prisoner-reduction order again and again, with Governor Jerry Brown claiming that the state prison system is “the “finest in the nation.”

The governor’s refusal to comply with the federal courts has drawn comparisons in federal court opinions to the most extreme obstructionism of southern governors during the height of their effort to maintain segregation in public schools when it was no longer legal.

The current order is for the state to reduce the number of prisoners by 10,850—1,250 in fire camps, 3,600 in out-of-state private prisons, and 6,000 through release.

On Monday, California officials announced a tentative deal to propose to the federal court overseeing the case, to place some prisoners in private prisons and keep the repeat crime down and return to prison of former prisoners through rehabilitation services—if the federal court will extend the deadline for the state to reduce its prison population.

The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office has said that the proposal would work in the short-term at considerable expense—but, within three years, have the state prison population back at an unacceptable level.

A fundamental issue is that the governor and the state government refuse to abandon a major premise that led to the massive increase in the California prison population—even though there is persuasive evidence that the premise is sometimes wrong.

The governor and the state refuse to release the 6,000 prisoners the federal court is proposing because, they contend, that would be a threat to public safety.

But as a report released on Monday by Stanford Law School and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund details, 1,000 California prisoners who had been behind bars for non-serious, non-violent offenses have been released since last November under a new state law, with a recidivism rate of 2 percent compared to the state average of 16 percent, and there are another 2,000 prisoners awaiting release under the program.

With the addition of prisoners released early for good time served, the state could release the total of 6,000 prisoners the federal court has called for—squarely addressing the problems of cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution that the Supreme Court has sharply criticized and admonished California to fix.

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