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February 4, 2010

"Justice Kennedy laments the state of prisons in California, U.S."

The title of this post is the headline of this notable article in today's Los Angeles Times. Here is how the piece starts:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy criticized California sentencing policies and crowded prisons Wednesday night, calling the influence that unionized prison guards had in passing the three-strikes law "sick."

In an otherwise courtly and humorous address to the Los Angeles legal community, Kennedy expressed obvious dismay over the state of corrections and rehabilitation in the country.  He said U.S. sentences are eight times longer than those issued by European courts.

"California now has 185,000 people in prison at $32,500 a year" each, he said.  He then urged voters and officials to compare that expense to what taxpayers spend per pupil in elementary schools.  "The three-strikes law sponsor is the correctional officers' union and that is sick!" Kennedy said of the measure mandating life sentences for third-time criminal offenders.

Justice Kennedy famously spoke out against US punishment and sentencing realities in a 2003 speech to the ABA, and I am pleased that he is continuing to express his concerns about modern American practices.  I also cannot help but wonder whether these issues are uniquely on Justice Kennedy's mind because of all the significant sentencing cases before the Supreme Court this term.

February 4, 2010 at 10:42 AM | Permalink


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The tree strikes law was authored by Republican legislator (and later California's secretary of state) Bill Jones. I'm fairly certain Mr. Jones was not a union man nor in their pocket.

Posted by: Really? | Feb 4, 2010 11:02:56 AM

I am no big fan of public employee unions -- to say the least -- but they have the right to lobby and to free speech just like anyone else. Indeed, this was the precise holding of Citizens United, authored by...............um..............now WHO authored it?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 4, 2010 11:10:08 AM

Really?, you're partially right. The ballot proposition that became the Three Strikes law was authored by Bill Jones. It was then passed by popular vote. The prison guards' union contributed around $100,000 to the campaign to help pass the initiative.

Posted by: arx | Feb 4, 2010 12:14:26 PM

I should also add that I have no idea whether CCPOA (the prison guards' union) contributed to Jones's campaigns when he was in the Assembly. I wouldn't be surprised either way.

Posted by: arx | Feb 4, 2010 12:19:04 PM

Whom would Kennedy release? That's the problem. We've already seen what releasing criminals early can do.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 4, 2010 2:48:15 PM

Federalist, I agree. We should concentrate on incarcerating people early. The average poor person WILL commit a crime at some point in their life. If you really cared about victims, you would advocate for incarcerating them before they commit their crimes.

Posted by: s.cotus | Feb 4, 2010 3:57:21 PM

federalist -

I imagine you're referring to some specific case about someone released early who committed another crime. Obviously, some people who serve time in prison, whether released early or at the completion of their term, will go on to commit other crimes.

As for who to release, you could start with nonviolent third strikers who are serving 25-to-life sentences for things like drug possession and shoplifting. The third strike can be any felony, not just one of the "strike" offenses, so they're often minor felonies. Since residential burglary is a strike, some lifers have no history of violence whatsoever.

Posted by: arx | Feb 4, 2010 4:22:40 PM

Repeat residential burglars are a threat. They need to be locked up.

As for serious criminals who are caught with drugs, well, that's an indicator of future crime.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 4, 2010 4:40:59 PM


Residential burglary is considered a crime of violence in federal sentencing because of the very real possibility of hostile confrontation with the homeowner. It is a serious offense and as a class, residential burglars are highly recidivistic.

Posted by: mjs | Feb 4, 2010 8:47:01 PM

What training, experience, or even reading has Justice Kennedy done about crime to legitimize his remarks? The maintenance crew of that venue likely knows a lot more about it than he does. He is spouting off on a subject he knows nothing about, and is making a jackass of himself.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 4, 2010 9:20:03 PM

It doesn't take a lot of digging.

Posted by: George | Feb 5, 2010 1:43:24 AM

I am researching on different law and enforcement, just came across on the website and visited on this blog. Jesus just can not believe California has 185,000 people in prison.

Posted by: Foreclosure Assistance | Feb 5, 2010 9:12:51 AM

Let's assume for the sake of argument that anyone sentenced under a three strikes law was probably going to commit another crime if not locked up. Where the third strike is shoplifting or selling a few grams of crack, is it appropriate and/or fair to put someone in prison for life to stop them from shoplifting or engaging in minor drug transactions again? Even if appropriate, is it worth the expense?

Posted by: Anon | Feb 5, 2010 10:24:02 AM

Kennedy is one of those folks who re-thinks things. Some Justices never do so.

California cannot afford the espense which the voters on special petitions and the general assemgbly impose upon the taxpayers of California.
The people of California must suffer under the burden which they have imposed--both from the legislature and from the Iniiative Petions. Srew your selves. Think about Andersonville! Y'all know what that place was all about, don't ya?
How about Buechenvauld? sp

Posted by: mpb | Feb 5, 2010 4:38:11 PM

The 3 strikes law should apply to violent offenders, not kleptomaniacs. Yet, if the leader of a paramilitary, ultra-violent gang is caught shoplifting, that third strike should apply to put him away for life. There is no specialization in crime. So the repeat shoplifter can turn out to have serial killing as a hobby.

That is a pretextual use of the law. The law is incompetent, and no tool should be precluded to incapacitate a repeat violent offender. One would like to give judges discretion, but they cannot be trusted with the public safety.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 6, 2010 10:03:50 AM

"Kennedy is one of those folks who re-thinks things."

... true when it comes to the legalization of sodomy. (Lawrence v Texas) What a weasel, Kennedy is. He puts his finger in the air, checks, and votes whichever the wind blows.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 6, 2010 10:08:26 AM

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