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The Supreme Court Tackles California's Prison Crisis

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The United States Supreme Court will hear argument Tuesday morning in one of the most important cases of the current term: a dispute between California and the federal courts over whether the state must release criminals from prison early to alleviate overcrowding that has become so dire there that it has been found to be unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual" under the Eighth Amendment.

At stake in the matter, styled Schwarzenegger v. Plata, isn't just whether and when 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners in the Golden State will be released before their full sentences are served. It's also about whether the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act should be interpreted in a way that will encourage other inmate challenges to other officials running overcrowded prisons in other states. It's a case that highlights the vast failure of California's prison system and focuses attention again on the nation's vast and sprawling prison industry, which churns out a new prison every week to meet the demand supplied by lawmakers and prosecutors and juries. All around the country, state politicians, law-enforcement officials, local prosecutors and other members of the criminal justice system are closely following the case.

It all began, as many of these conflicts do, in California. Responding to a class-action lawsuit brought by prisoners, and following a lengthy series of evidentiary hearings, a special three-judge panel found last year that the state simply has too many prisoners kept in too few prisons with too few doctors to care for them. The judges wrote:
Tragically, California's inmates have long been denied even that minimal level of medical and mental health care, with consequences that have been serious, and often fatal. Inmates are forced to wait months or years for medically necessary appointments and examinations, and many receive inadequate medical care in substandard facilities that lack the medical equipment required to conduct routine examinations or afford essential medical treatment. Seriously mentally ill inmates languish in horrific conditions without access to necessary mental health care, raising the acuity of mental illness throughout the system and increasing the risk of inmate suicide. A significant number of inmates have died as a result of the state's failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical care. As of mid-2005, a California inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days.
Accordingly, the panel ordered California to reduce its inmate population by tens of thousands of prisoners to improve the conditions for those prisoners who would remain incarcerated. The judges acknowledged that the prisoner release would require a reallocation of spending between state and local government. "Counties may well require additional financial resources from the state in order to ensure that no significant adverse public safety impact results from the state's population reduction measures," the judges wrote. "Counties may, for example, need additional financial resources in order to fund the additional costs of ongoing rehabilitation, re-entry, drug or alcohol, educational, and job training programs. Reducing the number of persons it imprisons should result in significant savings to the state. We do not now decide whether and to what extent the state should allocate part of its savings from such reductions to the counties. ..."

State officials, led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, appealed this ruling, and a subsequent ruling, even as they prepare to implement its directives. California officials say they are aware of the problems noted by the judges, agree that the present state of overcrowding is unacceptable, and have offered their own plan to reduce prison populations in the state by releasing some non-violent offenders and by sending other inmates to out-of-state prisons. But California also says that the judges went too far, legally and practically, in crafting the release order. State officials say that any constitutional violations stemming from any overcrowding are no longer occurring so that they may not form the basis for the remedy currently being imposed by the courts.

Moreover, California has told the justices that it cannot promise that the money saved from its prison budget -- money saved because there will be fewer prisoners -- will be spent on ensuring public safety. "There is," state lawyers wrote in their brief, "no guarantee that California, which remains mired in fiscal crisis, has the financial ability to offer those services, or that the political branches would agree to direct available funds to released prisoners rather than other pressing needs." Other states have chimed in on the debate on California's side, arguing that the federal judges exceeded their authority under the Prison Litigation Reform Act by not properly evaluating whether the ordered release would "invariably place innocent citizens at much greater risk of victimization."

Since the case began, half a decade ago, there are 8,000 fewer inmates in California's prisons. But now the justices have to determine the proper scope of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, whether the judges exceeded it when they issued their landmark ruling last year, and whether California ought to have more power to decide for itself the timing of its prison reform. Not surprisingly, then, the justices have expanded the length of Tuesday's argument an extra 20 minutes -- up to 80 minutes -- to ensure the lawyers have an opportunity to tackle the complex issues involved.

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36 Comments

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jnrentz

I wonder what role do illegal aliens play in this? If we have an offender who is not supposed to be in the United States, then why not simply deport him or her instaed of incarcerating them? Why we should punish those who engage in violent predatory offenses, we should deport those who engage in other types of crime.

January 25 2011 at 10:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sgentilejr

Rob & Kathy said "The California voters, in their infinite wisdom, just elected a big government tax and spend liberal Democrat for governor. Go figure..."
________________________________________________________________________________
Reply: Of course they voted for a Republican Governor after suffering from the last 6 years under leadership by a Republican Governor____
Arnold's approach left California as being the Worst Shape state in the entire USA with the worst economy, the most home foreclosures and the highest unemployment in the nation and the most business bankruptcies in the nation. After 6 years of Arnold's Republican Cut and Burn policy failures___anyone else looks like a better choice.
All that Arnold did for 6 years was to Terminate jobs, Terminate home ownership and Terminate economic opportunities in CA.

January 24 2011 at 7:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
weridethegale

The court case is 20 years old! California is not going to even try fixing their failed criminal justice and incarceration systems on their own. Instead, tough-on-crime politicians make it worse in an effort to get votes. We need to wise-up on crime. Continually building more prisons and sending people to for-profit corporation prisons is not economically sustainable. An official at the Donovan prison in San Diego said the recidivism rate was reduced from 70% to 21% because of their rehab, drug, and education programs. Using false economy and faulty logic, funding was cut for those programs. Spending $3,000 a year to rehabilitate someone is a bargain compared to incarceration cost of $42,000+ each year for each inmate. More important, the programs help prevent new crime and new victims. Follow the money. The big business of guard unions, politicians, corporate for-profit prisons, bail bond industry, and others make more money when we lock up more people for more time.

December 01 2010 at 2:09 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Rob & Kathy

California is a textbook example of the consequences of the liberal Democratic agenda....

November 29 2010 at 9:10 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Rob & Kathy's comment
lillyluminatus

So the dire state of California after nearly 8 years of Republican governorship is proof that the liberal agenda is bad? Logic isn't your strong suit, is it?

November 30 2010 at 9:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rob & Kathy

The California voters, in their infinite wisdom, just elected a big government tax and spend liberal Democrat for governor. Go figure...

November 29 2010 at 9:08 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Rob & Kathy's comment
lillyluminatus

Meg Whitman, in one of her campaign ads, explained why she came to California 30 years ago. According to her, 30 years ago, California was enjoying a Golden Age of fiscal sanity and stability and economic growth. You know who the governor was? The same man that California voters, in our obvious wisdom, reelected this year. Try again.

November 30 2010 at 9:04 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
brewerroger1

California has serious financial problems that currently and for some time to come will affect the Financial well being of the entire country. Because they will not face their financial problems they will expect the rest of the country to come to their aid. The prison problem is just one of hundreds that face Ca. One easy answer to this one is to check the citizenship status of every inmate. If they are illegals, deport them on the day that their minimum sentence has been fulfilled. I know the is not politically correct. However, can somebody prove me wrong that by deporting these criminals would have multiple benefits for the state. Under this threat, criminals may not committ as many crimes and certainly would be unable to repeat those crimes once released. An misdemeanor crime should just be deported no jail or prison time. I'd love to see the financial number that would be saved by a program of this type

November 29 2010 at 2:26 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
BIG POPPY

so inmates who never went to the doctor on the outside now get to go home because they don't have enough doctors they won't go to on the inside?... what a crock of BS!

November 29 2010 at 12:38 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to BIG POPPY's comment
lillyluminatus

You do? Where does it say that?

November 30 2010 at 9:24 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
wrascil

right away you notice its the STATE that does not spend the federal money allocated for the prison system on the prison system they (the state) steal it for there own benefits and retirement

November 29 2010 at 12:36 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
WT

Follow the Swiss example.... drive the illegal hispanic aliens that are in prison to the Mexican border..... and punt them over to the other side. California has created their own mess thru their liberal agendas, let them deal with it without the rest of us getting involved. I wonder what California is going to do when the people, who work and pay taxes, move out of that state.... leaving no one behind to pay for all their entitlment programs? California should just slide into the Sea so we don't have to listen to it anymore.

November 29 2010 at 12:07 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
mgdoolin

Interesting that the solution for dealing with the inadequate health care for prisoners would be to release them into the general public where they won't be able to get any health care at all. Although if the banking industry would hire these experienced thieves, I suppose the excons would get health insurance and problem solved.

November 29 2010 at 12:02 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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