California’s Prisons

From The Daily.

Wow, potentially 33,000 prisoners set free because of overcrowding? What are they saying in California about this?

The U.S. Supreme Court handed out tens of thousands of “get out of jail” passes to California inmates yesterday.

Ruling that massive overcrowding and deplorable living conditions in its state-run prisons are in violation of the Constitution, the court’s 5-4 decision obliges California to release about 33,000 prisoners.

The inmates will be released over the next two years from a system that has caused “needless suffering and death,” according to the majority opinion.

“The release of prisoners in large numbers — assuming the state finds no other way to comply with the order — is a matter of undoubted, grave concern,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the ruling. “Yet so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations.”…

n his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia called the majority opinion “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history,” and argued that the likely release of so many convicts would result in “terrible” consequences.

Attorney Rebekah Evenson of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in Berkeley, Calif., which counseled the plaintiffs, told The Daily there is no basis for such fears. “This is a landmark decision that will result in safer prisons, safer streets and billions of dollars in savings for California taxpayers,” she said. “Overcrowded prisons have not only resulted in unnecessary deaths of prisoners; they’ve resulted in higher recidivism rates, and the court agreed.”

However, writing a separate dissent from Scalia’s, Justice Samuel Alito echoed the pessimism about releasing such a large number of prisoners.

“The majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California,” Alito wrote. “I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong.”

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  • Woah. I’m not saying I support it, but fully expect that people will start acting like all 33,000 are violent offenders, when the reality almost certainly will be that the ones released (while still obviously in prison for a reason) will be predominately (if not exclusively) non-violent offenders.

  • Robin

    33,000 only gets you to a situation where for every person you convict of a felony, you are required to let one out. In order to provide some breathing room so that continual 1-1 releases aren’t required I’ve seen it estimated that California will have to do a 1-time release of as many as 46,000 inmates, roughly 1/3 of their prison population.

    If they are in state prisons, it means they are convicted felons, but those range from white collar felonies to serial murderers.

    Also, it is my understanding that this deals only with the actual prisons themselves, not the prison population. The capacity at the prisons is 110,000 but instead of just releasing 46,000 inmates, they could pay local jails to house their felons, or they could pay other states to house their felons, states which are not at capacity.

    The first option, pay local jails, costs some extra money, plus it would probably push low-level offenders back onto the streets instead of felons. The second option, pay other states, would cost a lot of money but there wouldn’t be as many criminals walking the streets.

    California also has a $30 billion budget shortfall, so they cannot really afford to be spending extra money. I asked our prison forecaster about the budgetary impact of letting 33,000 to 46,000 out of prison altogether and he seemed to think it would save them between $400 million and $750 million annually.

  • Robin

    In the end I think they will have to let lots of people go, they just cannot afford to ship them elsewhere.

    As far as the violent/non-violent breakdown I prefer to think in ratios. If they choose to release instead of relocate prisoners, they will have to release 1 out of 3 or 1 out of 5 prisoners who are, by definition, convicted felons. Do we really believe that 20% to 33% of all of the convicted felons in California are non-violent criminals who pose no serious threat to the general public?

    It seems implausible to me. Lots of drug gangs and white collar enterprises are about to get their good earners back.

  • I, quite frankly, don’t have the time to get into the argument and start quoting statistics. I also note that there are a good couple of years to come up with a solution. I just know from quite a bit I’ve read in the past that people almost always exaggerate the number of violent criminals in the system, and forget that many people are imprisoned for lesser crimes (to say nothing of the idea that prison time is often a default sentence when other sanctions might well be more appropriate). All I’m saying is that people should take a deep breath before screaming that the sky is falling.

  • Robin

    As far as the breakdown by crimes, the data is a little old (2005), but it looks like 50% of California’s prisoners are in for violent crime, ~20% for drug crimes, ~20% for property crimes, and ~10% for other crimes. Prop 36 already requires treatment instead of incarceration for some low-level drug felonies, so the low hanging (drug possession) fruit has already been picked.

  • Rich Starnes


    I can’t speak to exact stats, but California certainly has a disproportionate number of nonviolent offenders in its prisons due to its three-strikes law. It may not be a third, but a lot of people are serving 25-to-life for relatively petty crimes. While even petty criminals carry risk of causing real, direct and serious harm to people when released, there is a large base of inmates to choose from where at least the potential for serious reoffending is limited.

  • Robin

    One more note, the GAO found that California, in 2009, incarcerated 103,000 undocumented immigrants. (This includes all convictions, misdemeanor and felony).

    You have to reduce the average daily prison population by between 33,000 and 46,000. Since it costs money to pay for felons to be housed at local jails or out-of-state, it seems like one way to comply with the supreme court order and escape the burden of paying them to be placed elsewhere would be to fast-track deportation procedures for any undocumented immigrant convicted of a felony. Their home governments could choose to continue their imprisonment or release them into the civilian population. Either way you have complied with the order and minimized the criminals re-released into society without blowing the budget.

  • SFG

    California has ignored this problem for many years. The current Supreme court case began with a class action law suit filed in 1990! California has consistently done nothing to relieve overcrowding, and instead has continually gone to court to say that all was well in the prison system. And the courts have always ruled against California.

    In 2009 a three judge panel ruled that California had to reduce the number of prisoners. In their ruling, the panel noted that 12 years after the first suit was brought — and despite 70 court orders for remedies — conditions had continued to deteriorate horribly. As usually, California did little to obey the court ruling, except appeal to the Supreme Court.

    California has no one to blame but themselves. As a citizen of California, I am ashamed.

  • Dave

    you are aware that ex cons in california are allowed to vote, 33,000 new voters entering the system, hmmmmmm.

  • The photos that convinced SCOTUS that CA prisons are “cruel and unusual”.

    This one, in particular, is quite telling — Anthony Kennedy stated, “Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets…A psychiatric expert reported 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.'”

    Anthony Kennedy observed, “Cramped conditions promote unrest and violence, making it difficult for prison officials to monitor and control the prison population…After one prisoner was assaulted in a crowded gymnasium, prison staff did not even learn of the injury until the prisoner had been dead for several hours.”

  • Randy Gabrielse

    This is one ruling that has been a long time coming.

    Over 20 years, California has allowed its prison system to become a deadly place, not in terms of violence, but in terms of the state’s neglect of prisoners’ physical and mental health. We worry about the violence if prisoners are released, but how do we as Christians express concern about the violence done to prisoners -felons or not – by this kind of neglect and abuse in prison.

    Anyone who wants to comment on prisons and prisoners ought first to reach Michelle Alexander’s “Cruel and Unequal” in Sojourners, or even the full book “The New Jim Crow,” before addressing this ruling. She addresses a federal issue, but as so often with other issues, California is so big that it often exemplifies the best or worst about federal realities.

    Randy Gabrielse

    California’s prisons are famously the largest mental health facility in the nation, with 27,000 inmates suffering from mental illness (numbers are from an audit done for the California Legislature).

  • This was discussed today on National Public Radio as a “prisoners’ rights” issue, but the only way the US Supreme Court can deal with it is when things get so bad that it amounts to a violation of the US Constitution. So, the issue is that we as a country say we all agree to uphold certain standards for all our citizens. We should not abandon that agreement simply because the people being trampled are prisoners.

    I’m glad the Supreme Court finally put an end to the wrangling over this issue in California. California has two years to work out how they will comply.

    A related question you should think about: why do we have more people locked up than any other nation on the planet? I’m surprised radical Muslims don’t talk about us as hating our fellow human beings based on the rate we lock them away.

    Another question is why we have criminalized so many activities. It is telling that no other developed country has seen fit to follow our example.

    I consider politics to be the main culprit in our messed up prison systems and draconian rate of incarceration.

  • Salah Said

    The most violent criminals in California are the one’s enforcing the law. Just as Oscar Grant about the ‘justice’ he received.

  • Seems like a typical result of the philosophy of always trying to do things on the cheap. In this case, cruelty. It appears California brought this on itself.

  • Greg Metzger

    Having lived in Cali until last October I can tell young that the state ofnCalifornia has been forewarned for years about this but has weaseled outbof lower court orders. It is about time that they are finally forced to do something, but how they will do it within their supremely dysfunctional government is beyond me to predict. One of the reasons we moved is that Cali’s public sector is paralyzed.

    Here you will find one medium sized church’s response to the release of prisoners.