On Monday morning the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case known as Brown v. Plata that California has to reduce its prison population to manageable levels because overcrowding had created a large scale and ongoing violation of the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
Upon news of the ruling, the expected objections from those on the right began immediately.
“By flooding our neighborhoods with criminals, the court will make one of highest taxed states in the nation among the most dangerous as well,” howled former state senator George Runner.
Justice Alito, who had voted against the ruling, said something similar in a verbal dissent given from the bench: “The three-judge court ordered the premature release of approximately 46,000 criminals — the equivalent of three Army divisions.”
The vision of tens of thousands of felons about to be dumped into our communities is indeed a disturbing notion.
Except that it’s not true .
Yet, surprisingly many in the news media unwittingly reinforced the same unsettling misconception.
For example, here is the headline from the LA Times story that followed the ruling:
Supreme Court upholds order for California to release 46,000 inmates
And there was this:
California scrambles after Supreme Court orders the release of thousands of inmates
The LA Weekly’s headline was even more alarming:
Los Angeles Should Brace For Thousands of Released Prisoners Following Supreme Court Ruling
The article that follows opens with the news that, “The U.S. Supreme Court today ordered California to open the floodgates at its state prisons and unleash 37,000 of its 140,000 or so inmates…..”
Even the Wall Street Journal, led with the message that California was going to open the floodgates and disgorge armies worth of incarcerated felons on to the streets.
My personal favorite is Channel 5, KTLA news which reports that:
“The United States Supreme Court is handing out a “Get Out of Jail Free Card to Thousands of Inmates…..It’s about the largest jailbreak in California history…. The Supreme Court itself ordering 32,000 California inmates back on the street.” Then after hearing the heartrending, stomach-churning fears of a mother whose daughter has been murdered about the terrible consequences of this (non-existent) “jailbreak” the reporter has described, KTLA’s Chris Burroughs estimates with bright graphics that the decision will mean 22,400 new crimes committed within the year.
Responsible journalism at its best.
OKAY SO LETS GO OVER WHAT THE RULING DOES MEAN
In practical terms, Monday’s SCOTUS ruling means that that, over the next two years, the CDC needs to cut the inmate count from its existing 143,435, to approximately 109,805 prisoners—AKA 137.5 percent of the maximum capacity that the prison system was built to hold.
Applying simple math to the problem, this means that within 24 months, the California department of Corrections is required to lower the inmate population by 33,630 inmates.
However, the demand to lower the population is not an order to release prisoners.
No one, at the California Department of Corrections or in the Governor’s office, has ever suggested that they will release a massive bunch of prisoners early.
Instead, there are are a number of strategies being discussed that could accomplish the needed population reduction.
The primary of these is something called realignment , which—if implemented— would, by itself, take care of the population reduction.
In very brief terms, realignment would send parole violators and others with very short sentences, to jail instead of prison.
For instance, last year, according to the CDC’s Terry Thornton, 47,000 inmates served 90 days or less in state prison.
Sending people to state prison for less than six months is an inefficient and costly endeavor.
So, if, say 34,000 of those 47,000 were instead kept in the various county jails around the state for their 90 day terms—(rather than going through the very costly process of being carted up to one of the state prison reception centers for testing for a couple of months, and then assigned to a prison for a month or less, then released)—the court-ordered population reduction would be accomplished, without any kind of sentence reduction or risk to public safety.
Realignment is Jerry Brown’s chosen strategy, as it is the preference of CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate.
The only fly in the ointment is the fact that, although realignment will save the CDCR $$$, it also costs the state money because the various counties will have to be reimbursed for taking all those extra inmates. Given the state’s dismal budget status, funding the realignment would require that the voters approve the extension of the 2009 temporary tax hikes—-that is if Brown can manage to get the matter of the tax cut extension to the voters.
Plus, for LA County in particular, keeping all those inmates here is likely to simply transfer the overcrowding problem from the state to the county.
Sheriff Baca told KPCC’s Frank Stolze on Monday, that he worried about realignment.
Yet the California State Sheriff’s Association sent out a statement strongly supporting it:
The California State Sheriffs’ Association (CSSA) believes that fully funded, constitutionally protected and enacted at the proper time, realignment (AB 109) is a credible vehicle to mitigate the impacts of this ruling. Taken together with the recently passed legislation to assist counties with their correctional facility needs, we have a chance to lessen this impact. Simply saying no, as many have done, is no longer a credible answer. We will continue to work closely with the Governor, CDCR and the Legislature to do all we can to ensure we mitigate against the action taken by the court. Funding for front line law enforcement, jail operations and construction, community supervision, and evidence-based programs such as day reporting centers, will give Sheriffs and our public safety partners the best opportunity to protect public safety.
And, again, realignment is not he only strategy. It is simply the one many seem to favor at the moment.
However, whatever the strategy chosen, if the state is going to find the best solution to the need for prison population reduction, it would help if we could all start from a basis in facts—not fear.
SUPREME COURT RULING IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR SENTENCING REFORM
Speaking of other strategies, the LA Times put up a very good editorial following Monday’s ruling. Here’s a clip:
….The truth is that experts have been suggesting responsible ways to ease prison overcrowding for years. One way is to create an independent panel to revise the state’s haphazard sentencing guidelines, which all too often result in excessive terms that worsen overcrowding. In other states, sentencing commissions have lengthened penalties for truly dangerous felons while finding alternative punishments for minor offenders.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed such a commission, but he couldn’t get the Legislature to go along. Maybe the threat of wide-scale prisoner releases can finally scare our lawmakers straight.