Supreme Court sticks Brown with county jails

Supreme Court sticks Brown with county jails

Brown Vetoes Budget!States’ rights won’t save Gov. Jerry Brown from getting involved in California’s county jails.

Despite a forceful argument that federalism relieved the state of the added responsibilities, the U.S. Supreme Court persisted in making life more difficult for Brown. The justices refused to reconsider a decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which requires the state of California to ensure disabled prisoners in county jails receive the “reasonable accommodations” specified in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In an unusual move for high-ranking Democrats, Brown and state Attorney General Kamala Harris wanted the Supreme Court to consider that the 9th Circuit’s demands infringed on states’ 10th Amendment right to delegate power to local governments.

At stake is more than an important legal principle. Substantial expenditures are on the line. As the Associated Press reports, California could now be held liable for damages incurred in buildings not owned by the state. At the same time, state officials would have to wait until sued by parolees to gather any idea of how much money might have to be paid.

What’s more, Sacramento could be required to retrofit county jails — a costly, time-intensive process. Although neither the courts nor the plaintiffs involved raised that issue, California is technically vulnerable to a future ruling that demands exactly that. Brown’s and Harris’ resort to the 10th Amendment suggests that they take the possibility seriously.

A lasting burden

Brown’s struggles with the courts are exacting a measurable toll on his governorship. He faces an uphill battle on incarceration issues both with voters and fellow Democrats in the Legislature.

Although Brown has now broken even in public opinion polls on his treatment of crime. For instance, 46 percent still disapprove of his record on prisons, according to a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

In Sacramento, uncomfortable wrangling over proposed prison funds has now set in as well. Along with California’s county sheriffs, Brown wants $500 million in new bond money to expand the jails where prisoners affected by the 9th Circuit’s ruling will be held.

The push is part of Brown’s larger effort to manage another of the Supreme Court’s adverse rulings. Convinced that crowding in California prisons was so extreme as to be unconstitutional, the court’s decision drove Brown to implement a so-called “realignment” policy, shifting inmates out of state prisons and into county jails.

But that initiative has inspired a tug of war over how the bond money meant to smooth its way will be spent. AP reports that Senate Democrats want $85 million more than Brown would allocate to go toward mental illness programs for officers and guards.

Mental illness

In part, legislators are pivoting off the fear of untreated mental illness, heightened by the recent shootings in Isla Vista.

Additionally, the federal government is complicating Brown’s aims in yet another way. A recent Justice Department report is fueling demand for more mental illness spending. In a scathing review, Los Angeles county jails are accused of violating the Constitution by failing to afford mentally ill inmates an adequate level of care.

Although much of the report focuses on inmate suicide and suicide risk, general conditions in some jails were described as “deplorable,” Reuters reports.

From the standpoint of those currently calling the shots in the judicial and executive branches of the federal government, California’s prison system must be reformed, whatever the cost, until it passes constitutional muster. From the standpoint of Brown, however, the pressure to accelerate reform is making it harder to implement durable solutions.

Yet Brown faces an unofficial deadline of his own. If he is unable to turn around public opinion on prisons well before November, he will hand a fresh set of talking points to Republican opponent Neel Kashkari, who is hungry for a political issue that will unite Republicans and resonate with Californians regardless of party registration.

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