Jim Porter: Supreme Court orders release of 46,000 felons
June 9, 2011
TRUCKEE/TAHOE andamp;#8212; Californiaandamp;#8217;s 33 prisons are severely overcrowded. They are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but are now almost double that. Are the prisons so bad they violate the Eight Amendmentandamp;#8217;s ban on cruel and unusual punishment? Yup.Cruel and unusualThe U.S. Supreme Court upheld two lower court rulings and a three-judge panel andamp;#8212; ordering California to reduce its prison population to no more than 137 percent of capacity. The Court left the details up to the state and gave it two years.Now thatandamp;#8217;s a scary thought: up to 46,000 inmates on the loose, at least those not sent out of state or to county facilities (a scary thought for counties with overcrowded jails). However, most experts believe parole and sentence reform and sending less non-dangerous criminals to prison will prevent any wholesale release of prisoners.As the Court wrote: andamp;#8220;There is no realistic possibility that California can build itself out of the crisis.andamp;#8221; In fact, Governor Brown recently said he will not spend the money needed to expand San Quentin State Prison when California citizens are suffering so from lack of public services. Good politics.5-4 voteAs is generally the case with this Court, the justices split 5-4 on ideological grounds with Justice Kennedy again being the swing vote. He wrote, andamp;#8220;Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed not intended to house inmates. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers andamp;#8230; as many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet … There are backlogs of up to 700 prisoners waiting to see a doctor for physical care.andamp;#8221;I have never seen a photograph attached as part of a court opinion, but in this Opinion there are photos of the overcrowding conditions including a holding cell that is no larger than a phone booth for people waiting for a mental health crisis bed. Believe me, if you didnandamp;#8217;t have a mental crisis before you went into that metal cage, you would after you were there for a few minutes or hours, especially if you had to wait behind 700 prisoners to see a doctor or 54 to take a leak.Tough on crimeCaliforniaandamp;#8217;s prison population has increased by 750 percent since the mid-1970andamp;#8217;s. Not unrelated, the crime rate has fallen dramatically since prison sentences have increased. We are tough on crime in the Golden State. Slow with the checkbook.andamp;#8220;A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society,andamp;#8221; opined Kennedy.I know some of us are quick to conclude andamp;#8220;if you didnandamp;#8217;t commit a crime you wouldnandamp;#8217;t be in prison,andamp;#8221; but from the statistics quoted in the Opinion, and the graphic photos, there is indeed andamp;#8220;needless suffering and deathandamp;#8221; in our prisons. I know, I know andamp;#8212; whatandamp;#8217;s wrong with that you say.Justice Scaliaandamp;#8217;s dissentConservative Justice Scalia wrote a blistering dissent: andamp;#8220;Today the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nationandamp;#8217;s history: an order requiring California to release the staggering number of 46,000 convicted criminals andamp;#8230; most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.andamp;#8221;Justice Alitoandamp;#8217;s dissentJustice Alito was no less condemning in his dissent: andamp;#8220;The Constitution does not give federal judges the authority to run state penal systems … Federal courts have the responsibility that this constitutionally standard is met, but undesirable prison conditions that do not violate the Constitution are beyond the federal courtsandamp;#8217; reach andamp;#8230; absurd.andamp;#8221;And my Alito favorite: andamp;#8220;The majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California andamp;#8230; I fear that todayandamp;#8217;s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years we will see.andamp;#8221;I donandamp;#8217;t know folks, but I fear conditions in California are going to get worse before they get better.Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governor’s appointee to the Fair Political Practices Commission and McPherson Commission, both involving election law and the Political Reform Act. He may be reached at email@example.com or at the firmandamp;#8217;s website http://www.portersimon.com.