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The Supreme Court grapples with California's prison crisis

by Wes Messamore, published

California's prisons are so overcrowded and their conditions so appalling, that the Supreme Court may rule against Governor Schwarzenegger after hearing oral arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Plata.  In the lawsuit, a special panel of three federal judges ordered the state to reduce its prison population from nearly 200% of capacity to 137.5% of capacity.

Prison overcrowding is apparently no longer merely inconvenient, uncomfortable, or too expensive for the taxpayers of California- it may very well be a "cruel and unusual" punishment- in violation of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution- for the thousands of inmates that live in:

"...a chaotic system where prisoners stacked in triple bunk beds in gymnasiums, hallways and day rooms; where single guards often forced to monitor scores of inmates at a time; and where ill inmates for lack of treatment.

'In these overcrowded conditions, inmate-on-inmate violence is almost impossible to prevent, infectious diseases spread more easily, and lockdowns are sometimes the only means by which to maintain control,' the panel wrote. 'In short, California’s prisons are bursting at the seams and are impossible to manage.'"

Opponents of the court order cite public safety as a major concern. During oral arguments, Justice Alito expressed fear that releasing a large number of prisoners in a short period of time would cause a rise in crime. During his rebuttal period, California's lawyer, Carter Phillips argued:

"Anytime you say you are going to release 30,000 inmates in a compressed period of time, I guarantee you that there is going to be more crime and people are going to die on the streets of California."

But proponents of the court order argue that not enforcing the order would create a rise in crime and endanger both public safety and health in California. David Fathi, Director of the ACLU's National Prison Project contends that:

"Our public safety is jeopardized by overcrowded prisons, in which high-risk prisoners don't rehabilitate and low-risk prisoners learn new criminal behavior. It is far past time to abandon failed 'get-tough' ideologies and invest in policies that are rooted in evidence, fiscal prudence and common sense."

And the health conditions in our overcrowded prison system put prisoners, prison staff, and the entire public at risk, turning our prison systems into incubators for dangerous communicable diseases that prison workers can then transmit to the public. Indeed, during arguments Tuesday, Justice Breyer referred to a brief that described prisoners:

"...found hanged to death in holding tanks where observation windows are obscured with smeared feces, and discovered catatonic in pools of their own urine after spending nights locked in small cages."

Does it really make Californians safer to merely wait and spring prisoners on them in a few years after forcing them to endure these conditions in close quarters with harder criminals? Proponents also emphasize that truly hard criminals would remain behind bars under the federal court order. Mostly non-violent and first-time offenders would be released, and sex offenders would not have an opportunity at all for release under the plan.

There is a chance, however, that the federal court order might not pass muster despite the appalling conditions in California's prisons. While frustrated by the state's prison overcrowding, Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court's swing vote for the case, also had problems with the court order, calling 137.5% of capacity an arbitrary number.

But the real question that the Supreme Court faces here is not whether that order used an arbitrary number, and it's not even what the practical effects of their ruling might be, such as the potential for increased street crime. Their purpose is to interpret the law and decide if the federal panel's ruling would bring California in line with the law.

If the Constitution is being violated by prison overcrowding and enforcing the federal panel's decision would enforce the civil rights of California's inmates, then the court has a responsibility to uphold the decision and let the state attend to the matter of reducing crime on its streets.

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