The Supreme Court has ruled that California has to release some 33,000 prisoners as their living conditions in the current California prison system constitute a violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibiting “cruel and unusual” punishment. Editors around the country are weighing in on what’s best to help California out.
But 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.
The state has two years to reduce the overcrowding. Whatever means it chooses, it needs to rethink laws and policies that keep a large number of people in prison for technical parole violations and others for minor, nonviolent crimes. Its limited prison space should be used for people who truly pose a threat to society.
California could prove [Scalia] right if it emptied the required number of jail cells and turned away. But that shouldn’t happen. Just as bad would be dumping the overflow numbers into county jails without the services to reduce recidivism and maintain oversight.
The high court has told Sacramento what it can’t do. What the state must do next is address a runaway prison problem.
Indeed, it will be easy for law-and-order politicians to demagogue this issue. But cooler heads must prevail. The legal fight has been resolved. It’s now up to state leaders to find creative ways to reduce the size of our costly prison system.
Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill that would transfer low-level offenders to county jurisdiction. It’s a step in the right direction when counties have space available. But the Legislature has not provided money for the transfer.
State leaders must go further by rethinking some of our sentencing rules, making changes to our parole system and considering transfer to lower-level lockups of prisoners who are so infirmed that they no longer pose a threat to anyone.
Our current system is no longer affordable. And, as the Supreme Court said, it’s unconstitutional.
Not a single solution seems to be the most obvious: build more prisons. Just yesterday a three-time-California felon was arrested in the assault on a Dodger fan.
Yes, building more prisons will be costly. But, why aren’t new prisons considered shovel-ready stimulus projects? Projects that actually create jobs. If California can find the money to fund $3 billion worth of research on embryonic stem cells, building additional prison space to keep dangerous people off of the streets is a necessity.