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September 15, 2009

Editorial suggests why federal judges have had to be involved in California prison reform

The Sacramento Bee has this effective new editorial reviewing all the latest California prison reform happenings, which is headlined "Assembly invites judges to intervene."  Here are excerpts:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has until Friday to submit a prison population reduction plan to a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  In a terse two-sentence order, the U.S. Supreme Court denied an attempt at delay.

Three years ago, Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prisons.  Overcrowding, he said, "causes harm to people and property, leads to inmate unrest and misconduct, reduces or eliminates programs, and increases recidivism as shown within this state and in others."

He has presented countless proposals, backed by expert testimony, to reduce prison population. But he has been rebuffed time and again by legislators.  So the three-judge panel finally stepped in, establishing a prison population cap on Aug. 4.  Prisons designed for 80,000 prisoners hold more than 148,000 today.  The cap, set at 137.5 percent of design capacity, would bring the population to 110,000 within two years.

The Legislature could have passed a feasible and timely proposal to reduce prison population before leaving town last Friday. Instead, driven by a cowering Assembly, the package finally sent to the governor's desk was watered down.  The final bill would reduce the prison population by 7,500. While that helps, it does not come close to the 38,000 needed over two years.

The Assembly killed an item that would allow some lower-risk, older, ill prisoners to serve the last 12 months of their sentences under house arrest with GPS monitoring.  All told, the Assembly killed reforms that would have reduced prison population by an additional 12,300.  And it left out the key long-term reform: establishing an independent, professional sentencing commission.  Those items will have to wait until January, when the Legislature returns to session. In the meantime, the state has to submit a plan to the court by Friday....

So the Assembly has tied the state's hands, making it all the more likely that the three-judge panel will have to lay down actual, feasible and timely ways to get to a prison population of 110,000. Lawmakers then will predictably whine about the intervention of the courts. But if they'd do their job, the courts wouldn't have to do it for them.

Relatedly, the Wall Street Journal ran this interesting piece this past weekend, which was headlined "Crime Makes a Comeback in California Politics: Early parole and prisoner releases could put an old issue back on the agenda."  It puts all these recent political debates in modern historical contexts and looks forward to how all these issues might play out in the 2010 race for Governor in California.

September 15, 2009 at 09:24 AM | Permalink

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Tracked on Sep 15, 2009 5:57:05 PM

Comments

The current rate of recidivism in CA is upwards of 60%. So, when 60% of the 37K+ prisoners reoffend and return to prison, what are the judges going to do then? Order the relase of another 20K prisoners to make way for the once-released/newly reoffended? Just out of curiosity, I wonder if any of the judges who made this decision ever worked as a prison guard, or ever ran a prison, before enrolling in law school. That kind of perspective might have produced a different decision.

Posted by: Large County Prosecutor | Sep 15, 2009 2:49:46 PM

LCP,

I welcome the coming building boom for CA prisons, but otherwise agree with the basic ruling in this case. The state has had an extraordinary amount of time to deal with this issue yet has been unable to for political reasons.

Perhaps lighting a fire under the state legislature is what is actually needed in CA. Constitutional norms should not be abandoned simply because it is inconvenient to follow them.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 15, 2009 4:11:41 PM

Prosecutor, are you saying that judges should let their personal experiences influence the way they interpret the law? With a wise Latina coming to one interpretation, and an ex-prison-guard to another?

The three-judge panel was interpreting the Eighth Amendment. I do not see how the panel's interpretation of the Bill of Rights would be influenced by a background as a prison guard -- except that such a background might bolster the panel's conclusion that conditions inside California prisons constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Oh, and I don't see you suggesting any better ideas.

Posted by: CN | Sep 15, 2009 4:15:33 PM

I'm not sure where in the Eighth Amendment it says, "Prison systems housing more than 110,000 prisoners are cruel and unusual per se." You mean to tell me that CA prisons will be safe and constitutional at 109,999, but add two more inmates to get to 110,001 and the Eighth Amendment will spontaneously combust?

If crime is at historical lows yet recidivism is around 60%, what does that mean? It means law enforcement is arresting and prosecuting habitual offenders. The exact group that should be the subject of criminal justice resources. As for better ideas, here they are: eliminate parole; and impose tiered security so new inmates start at med or max security and work their way towards min security by the end of their sentence.

Posted by: Large County Prosecutor | Sep 15, 2009 5:38:15 PM

If crime is at historical lows yet recidivism is around 60%, what does that mean? It means law enforcement is arresting and prosecuting habitual offenders.

That is a perfectly reasonable conclusion. But I fail to see how the effectiveness of law enforcement has anything to do with the conditions in which offenders are housed.

As for better ideas, here they are: eliminate parole; and impose tiered security so new inmates start at med or max security and work their way towards min security by the end of their sentence.

Both excellent ideas. But the existence of better solutions does not excuse California's failure to implement ANY solution. Would you be happier if the three-judge panel had ordered the elimination of parole?

I'm not sure where in the Eighth Amendment it says, "Prison systems housing more than 110,000 prisoners are cruel and unusual per se."

It does not say that. The order of the three-judge panel doesn't say it, either. It's a thorough and considered opinion; you might want to read it.

You mean to tell me that CA prisons will be safe and constitutional at 109,999, but add two more inmates to get to 110,001 and the Eighth Amendment will spontaneously combust?

Now, now, you know very well that line-drawing is necessary to making law. The line between minor and non-minor, between petty theft and grand theft, et cetera. Just because a certain arbitrariness is involved doesn't mean we should chuck the Bill of Rights.

Posted by: CN | Sep 15, 2009 6:44:25 PM

Just so I understand, the judges issued a thorough and reasoned opinion to divine a certain arbitrary constitutional standard for the CA prison population, which will probably have no effect on either recidivism or inmate safety. I want to make sure I have this correct before I start scooping up my brain off the floor.

Posted by: Large County Prosecutor | Sep 16, 2009 5:07:45 PM

What would you have the judges do, Prosecutor? They determined that conditions in CA prisons violated the 8th Amendment. You may not agree with that conclusion, but that's what they concluded.

The judges then gave California chance after chance after chance to improve the conditions. The judges then gave California yet more chances. California refused to do anything.

Finally, the judges ordered specific changes designed to improve conditions in the prisons. Are the judges' changes ham-fisted and imperfect? Hell, yes! They're judges, not legislators or executives or adminstrators. But don't blame the judges, blame California.

Posted by: CN | Sep 16, 2009 6:45:44 PM

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