Supreme Court Orders California to Relieve Inmate Over-Crowding

by on May 24, 2011 · 11 comments

in California, Civil Rights, Health, Popular

Supreme Court Calls BS on California’s 3 Decades of “Law and Order”

by Robert Cruickshank / Calitics / May 23, 2011

I suppose someone should write about [Monday’]s 5-4 US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata, where the court ruled that California must release 33,000 prisoners to relieve overcrowding in state prisons. So I’ll take a shot at it.

The ruling is basically the Supreme Court calling bullshit on 30 years of “law and order” politics in California. Since George Deukmejian became governor in 1982 – and enabled, it should be noted, by stiffer sentences Jerry Brown approved the first time he was governor in the 1970s – California has gone on a prison-building binge. Nearly 25 new prisons were built in the last 30 years. In contrast, only 3 CSU campuses were opened (two of which, CSUCI and CSU Monterey Bay, were reuses of existing facilities) and only 1 new UC campus, Merced, was built. This is despite the fact that the cost of building prisons and colleges is about the same, the fact that prison guards make more money than most professors, and the fact that students at least pay for their room and board, whereas prisoners don’t. Oh, and the fact that educating is preferable to jailing them.

California built all these prisons and kept passing tougher and tougher sentencing laws, most of which were absurd or unnecessarily harsh. But California didn’t seem to realize you actually have to pay for the costs of operating all those prisons. And as prisoners age, their health care needs increase, and you have to pay for those things too.

But California legislators thought they could have it both ways – they could score points with a late 20th century electorate by filling the prisons, and score points with the same electorate by not paying to maintain those prisons or care for the prisoners. This was an untenable situation, and it has finally blown up in Sacramento’s face.

Legislators may complain about mass release of prisoners, but they have had plenty of time to avoid doing so, and at every turn have chosen to ignore the underlying problems. The Supreme Court has finally, and rightly, said that this situation is nonsense and cannot continue.

Now a mass release doesn’t have to happen. There are still alternatives. California could actually do some sensible things to deal with the issue. First off, they could stop adding to the overcrowding by finally passing some sentencing reform. They could start by legalizing marijuana – 47% of voters indicated their support for it by voting for Prop 19 last year. Eventually, and soon, legalization will become a majority position. The state could simply speed that up by a couple years and save money in the process.

California could also help end the cycle of recidivism by actually funding parole and rehabilitation programs. Once someone leaves prison, it would make sense for them to not have to return. Investing in programs to get ex-cons back into society and ensure they stay out of trouble is smart – and it frees resources to ensure that parole officers can do a better job tracking people likely to reoffend.

Jerry Brown appears to be learning his lesson. He used today’s ruling to call for tax increase (and can I stop for a moment and point out how awesome it is that finally, Democrats are using moments of crisis to advance a progressive agenda?). That’s a necessary part of the answer.

But it’s incomplete unless Brown adopts some sort of sentencing reform. He needs to recognize his error, that the increased sentences and mandatory minimums of the 1970s were an unwise act of political expediency and need to be replaced with something more sensible. It would be good if the Legislature followed that path too.

The Supreme Court has given California the chance to do something sensible on prisons for the first time in many decades. Let’s hope Sacramento follows through.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackie McElveny May 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm

About time. The laws in this state are draconian. And the disparity between funding for prisons and funding for education here is truly, truly appalling, something I’ve been ranting about for years. Perhaps this will be a badly needed wake-up call.


RB May 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Just another example of failed state government in California.
Can’t run their budget. Can’t run their prisons. Can’t run their schools.


The Mustachioed OBecian May 24, 2011 at 4:22 pm

While sentencing guidelines certainly need to be revisited to toss away frivolous parole violations or lengthy drug possession offenses, not to mention a review of non-dangerous prisoners, I wonder why the state simply can’t build more prisons? Puts some people to work and keeps the worst elements behind bars.

At least this forces the state to deal with the issue now, or at least in the next 2 years, instead of continually kicking the can down the road.


annagrace May 24, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Incarcerating people is kicking the can down the road. How about education, literacy, decent jobs, and a rational penal code?


editordude May 24, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Sorry, readers, if you caught the typo in the initial headline. The pre-corrected headline was first put up this morning, and then our computer had to undergo maintenance before we had an opportunity to change it.


Marilyn Steber May 24, 2011 at 11:03 pm

What part does the private prison companies play in California, I wonder.
Next we will hear about the “need” for more prisons and will send offenders to contracted prisons.
Bill Maher is right. There are some things government Should do. When that becomes too expensive, letting offenders out may be one way, but there are many people who are not sleeping well. Like rape victims of both genders.


RB May 25, 2011 at 6:48 am

The average cost of keeping a prisoner in the US is $29,000.
The average cost of keeping a prisoner in Texas is $18,000.
The average cost of keeping a prisoner in California is $47,000.
It is time to bring this number down in California.


Patty Jones May 25, 2011 at 9:50 am

Interesting reading at the link you posted. I would like to know what some of these numbers actually represent. For example, Classification services @ $1,773 per year per inmate. What does this actually entail? And why does it cost more than feeding an inmate? Maintenance of inmate records @ $660 per year is more than the total of Inmate employment, canteen and clothing…

And Inmate Health Care, a total of $12,442 per year? I realize this is an average but it seems way off base. Most inmates receive little to no health care services, due to a system that many times offers too little, too late. So is this number skewed by a small number of inmates that require major medical attention?

In the news right now is the case of Steven Martinez, a convicted rapist who is now a quadriplegic. They have denied his compassionate release to his family because, even though he is only able to move his head, they still consider him a threat because he may be able to convince someone else to do his dirty work for him. It seems to me that he would be able to find more willing participants in prison than in his families’ home.


Brenda McFarlane May 25, 2011 at 10:18 am

Average cost of attending community college and living off campus is $16,428.


Jackie McElveny May 25, 2011 at 9:40 am

Here are some more facts and figures (which are somewhat outdated as I wrote this a year and a half ago as a letter to the editor, UT) pertinent to the disportion between spending on the penal system and spending on education. This is truly one my “hot buttons”.

In order to more fully address the “disproportionate share of budget” which goes toward education in the state of California, one should bear in mind that our system is already ranked 47th in the country in per-pupil spending. In contrast, funding for the California prison system, which has been described variously as the third largest in the world (2004) and the third largest in the country (2009), has more than doubled over the past decade. The yearly cost to feed, clothe and medicate a state of California inmate is $45,000, roughly five times what is spent on a typical public school student (K-12) and equivalent to what it would cost to cover tuition at one of the country’s more prestigious private universities per Sacramento Bee and Orange County Register editorials respectively. Given that a solid educational foundation, well-dispersed among the populace, is probably the most effective crime-prevention tool in existence, I find it ironic that we keep whittling away at funding for our schools while perpetuating a penal system whose costs continue to rise astronomically.


The Mustachioed OBecian May 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm

I’m not so sure that there’s a coorelation between spending and improvement in education. Throwing more money at k-12 education likely will do one thing, waste more money.

So, while we spend quite a bit on incarcerating criminals in this state, attempting to balance the sheets between students and felons is kind of an apples to oranges comparison.

If education were all we needed to lower the prison rolls, then I’m guessing that we shouldn’t find too many graduates involved in crime, which I can’t say for certain is the case. Afterall, I’m sure we all know a number of people who have been involved in DUI accidents that led to prison terms, and I don’t think the common denominator was a lack of education.


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