Court Addresses CA Legislators' Failure

Commentary

MAY 23, 2011

By STEVEN GREENHUT

In the Assembly today, legislators praised ethnic studies departments and had long-winded debates before voting to ban the trading of shark fins in California. But while the state government becomes ever-more meddlesome in ever-expanding areas of private life, it’s increasingly clear that the Legislature and the state bureaucracies are incapable of handling even the most basic and important responsibilities that come before them.

One of the basics is public safety. Government is not supposed to manage the economy and social engineer our lives, but it is supposed to arrest and lock up criminals. But the U.S. Supreme Court had to step in today because the state government’s handling of the prison system has become abusive and unconstitutional.

As the court explained, “California’s prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but at the time of the decision under review the population was almost double that. … In Coleman v. Brown, filed in 1990, the District Court found that prisoners with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care. A Special Master appointed to over-see remedial efforts reported 12 years later that the state of mental health care in California’s prisons was deteriorating due to increased overcrowding. In Plata v. Brown, filed in 2001, the State conceded that deficiencies in prison medical care violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights and stipulated to a remedial injunction.”

Years go by and nothing changes in the state prison system. The conditions are horrendous. No one is thrilled to have the U.S. Supreme Court step in and order the state to (potentially) release inmates — a frightening prospect that could, as dissenting Judge Samuel Alito put it, amount to “gambling with the safety of the people of California.” The court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 30,000 inmates, to bring it down to 137.5 percent of the system’s capacity. There are various ways of achieving this far beyond just letting violent felons back on the street. So some of the hysteria is no doubt unwarranted. Prisoners could be housed in county jails, for instance, but knowing how the state government operates, it’s likely that many prisoners will be released — and it’s not likely to be only those who are suffering medical problems.

Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway of Tulare issued a statement that made the following point: “The Supreme Court today chose to ignore the devastating impact that a population cap would have on our communities and instead paved the way for the early release of tens of thousands of dangerous criminals.  This is an example of legislating from the bench at its worst.  As a result of this reckless and irresponsible decision, innocent Californians could be at serious risk of becoming victims of crime.”

But as the court’s timeline makes clear, California officials have for years known that the prison system at times resembles a torture chamber. Justice Anthony Kennedy, siding with the four more liberal justices, wrote an impassioned majority opinion that detailed the dismal state of affairs in the prison system:

In 2006, then-Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prisons, as “‘immediate action is necessary to prevent death and harm caused by California’s severe prison overcrowding.’” The consequences of overcrowding identified by the Governor include “‘in-creased, substantial risk for transmission of infectious illness’” and a suicide rate “‘approaching an average of one per week.’” Prisoners in California with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care. Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for pro-longed periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. A psychiatric expert re-ported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic. Prison officials explained they had “‘no place to put him.’”

This certainly seems to fit the definition of cruel and unusual punishment. Does anyone believe that had the court not intervened that there would be any resolution to this problem? As always is the case with government, problems linger for years and then decades. Politicians talk about the problem and propose solutions and then nothing ever really happens because politically based systems are nearly impossible to change. The incentives are wrong. Miscreants and incompetents who work for the state are rarely held accountable.

The libertarian Cato Institute’s Tim Lynch argues that no one should be surprised by Kennedy’s position on this issue. He quotes a speech Kennedy gave to the American Bar Association:

This is your justice system; these are your prisons. … [W]e should know what happens after the prisoner is taken away.  To be sure, the prisoner has violated the social contract; to be sure he must be punished to vindicate the law, to acknowledge the suffering of the victim, and to deter future crimes.  Still, the prisoner is a person; still, he or she is part of the family of humankind.

Just because prisoners violated the social contract doesn’t mean that they should be treated like rats. Even though prisoners are generally not worthy of sympathy doesn’t mean they should be subjected to the kind of abuses often perpetrated on them by sadistic guards. We shouldn’t turn away from these abuses and conservatives — who claim to be about limiting government power — should likewise be concerned. They should do more than grandstand the law-and-order issue, not that Democrats have been any better. Former Gov. Gray Davis took the hardest line on prison issues — he wasn’t going to let Republicans outflank him on the right on this issue and most Democrats have not cared about civil liberties as they court favor with the unions, which want nothing more than to protect their members from accountability.

Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, has (as usual) an intelligent and appropriate take on the matter:

“This decision puts every citizen at risk and is a perversion of the justice system,” said Senator LaMalfa. “The legislature acted in 2007 to pass a $3.5 billion bond package to finance the construction of new prisons, yet four years later not a single new facility has been built.  Bureaucracy and failure to act has caused the construction projects to stall and lead the state to this court decision.  While I disagree completely with the ruling, I’m not surprised with the courts action, as California was warned in 2007.”

“The past administration and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation purposeful inaction have brought us to this day.  Now, it is the citizens who have to bear the danger of 40,000 felons released into their neighborhoods and additional victimization that will follow.  My hope is that we can construct the facilities we need and that the federal court will alter their opinion if California can demonstrate a speedy response.”

“This does not need to be the next tax increase pitch for Governor Brown; the legislature has already allocated the funding needed.  Now is the time for a sober assessment and action- not more stalling and calling for taxes.  There is no reason why California needs to spend twice as much per prisoner to incarcerate felons than other states.”

This situation is indeed the result of the incompetence and inaction of the state bureaucracy. The money was there to build new prisons. I’d also go a few steps further. Why is there no talk of sentencing reform, given the numbers  of Californians who are jailed as part of the drug war and other nonviolent activity?

California’s lack of prison space is in part driven by our excessively high costs of imprisoning inmates — $49,000 per inmate per year, nearly double the national average and nearly three times the cost of low-cast states. If our legislators weren’t so subservient to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the prison guards union, we could more successfully send inmates out of state, or privatize the prison system here. Private prisons tend to be far more humane than these public ones given that the private employees are held to a higher standard. They cannot hide behind their unions. They do not have sovereign immunity.

Here is a Stanford study showing the malicious influence of the CCPOA on state prison and public safety policy. Is this how this important issue should be handled?

This is another government-caused problem. Once again, the public will suffer for the failure of the bureaucrats, the selfishness of the unions and the incompetence of the legislators. Don’t blame the U.S. Supreme Court for the disaster that might befall the state.

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  1. Pam McDonald
    Pam McDonald 23 May, 2011, 18:13

    All this, and California still spends more per inmate than any other State, all the while, the majority of inmates are illegal violent criminals. God help the Californians too stupid to move from this dysfunctional State!!!

    Reply this comment
  2. Cicero
    Cicero 23 May, 2011, 18:50

    Under the 10th Amendment the Supreme Court has no right to tell any state how to run a school, fire department or prison. PERIOD.

    But following the Constitution has no meaning to either wing of the insane Republicrat Party. To them it is all about the creation of a centralized Big Brother state.

    Reply this comment
  3. John Steele
    John Steele 24 May, 2011, 08:06

    Steve,
    Your Spot On with your observation. The California Legislature is incapable of handling it’s consitutional duties. But they don’t have a problem with micro- managing your life. We need a drastic change in the CA legislature. NOT going to happen until the the citizens of CA stop the practice just re-electing the same corrupt failed 60’s nuts who are causing this disaster day after day

    Reply this comment

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