By Larry Gerston, Ph.D. / NBC San Diego /May 27, 2011
The U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold a cap on the number of California prisoners complicates the already cloudy California budget picture.
Under the terms of the decision, California must release 36,000 prisoners within five years because current overcrowded conditions constitute violation of the Eighth Amendment guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.
The state now faces a daunting problem: either release prisoners outright or build more prisons which are extremely costly. Given California’s touchy budget mess, it appears that the releases will take place, which will no doubt cause concern in the communities to which the released prisoners relocate.
It may also cause a headache for California Governor Jerry Brown as the person in charge of the state even though Brown has no responsibility for the crisis.
In fact, more than anything else, the problem was caused by the “three strikes” initiative passed by the voters in 1994, which allows judges to sentence twice-convicted felons to a minimum of 25 years in prison, regardless of the crime they are convicted of on the third occasion.
Tens of thousands of prisoners are incarcerated because of that law, and the state has failed to build enough facilities to house them.
The Supreme Court decision reveals another important fact–the extent to which the federal courts may overrule a state law if judges see the law in violation of U.S. constitutional guarantees. Arizona has learned this with the overturn of its immigration legislation. And last year, several cities including Chicago, had gun control laws overturned because, the Court said, they were violating the Second Amendment rights of individuals.
Ironically, the Court’s decisions on these types of issues in recent years have actually empowered the states more times than not. But in the California case, the state will pay the price for not keeping up with the needs of its prisoner population.
Whether Jerry Brown pays the price as well remains to be seen.