Federal Judges Thelton E. Henderson and Lawrence K. Karlton have absolutely HAD IT with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California State Legislature. The judges feel they’ve given clear warnings. They’ve said what the consequences would be if Arnold and the Leg don’t get their collective act together in terms of relieving prison overcrowding that has metastasized to such an extreme, say the judges, that it has created inhumane conditions clearly in violation of the U. S. Constitution—particularly in areas pertaining to prisoner health and mental health.
(I can attest to this—at least second hand. Because of my work, I get weekly collect calls from various state correctional institutions, and the tales I hear on a regular basis are pretty horrifying. Of course, they are also tough to prove as, with extremely rare exceptions, reporters are prevented from visiting prisoners.)
In response to the judge’s previous warnings, earlier this year lawmakers endlessly congratulated themselves for passing AB 900, a monster $7.4-billion prison-building bill. The judges, however, were not molified and all but visibly spat on the legislation, correctly pointing out that while it adds 54,000 additional beds, it does so without also adding extra staffing or any appreciable rehabilitation programs for prisoners. In other words, it would make things worse.
“From all that presently appears,” said Judge Karlton, who is overseeing a mental health care class-action lawsuit against the prison system, “new beds will not alleviate this problem but will aggravate it…..Given the almost twelve years that this case has been in its remedial phase,” he growled, “and given the constitutional considerations at stake, the direction in which the State has at present chosen to go by enacting AB 900 simply fails to address in any timely way relief from the overcrowding crisis and its attendant impact.”
This brings us to yesterday when the two judges announced that they were talking matters out of California lawmakers hands and into their own—then appointed a three person panel to come up with a way to alleviate the overcrowding. This is the last legal step before the judges actually “cap” the population—meaning that they could enforce dramatic remedies to keep the statewide prison population down to a fixed, manageable level. For instance, to do so they could require:
1. Certain low-level offenders to be released early. (This means that as many as 35,000 prisoners could get sprung.)
2. Thousands of offenders released to serve the rest of their sentences at home with an electronic anklet. (Since a significant portion of California’s prisoners are locked up for technical violations of their parole, not for new crimes, they would likely be first on the list along with non-violent, low-level drug offenders.)
3. Sentencing reform, sentencing reform, sentencing reform.
Arnold and the state legislature swear they’ll be able to get this all in hand before the panel brings down the hammer.
The judges don’t seem one bit convinced.
The LA Times, and the NY Times among others have stories.
PS: Several of my felonious collect callers tell me they’ve heard about the possible cap and are keeping their fingers crossed that it’ll happen and they’ll be on the Get-Out-Of-Jail Card list.