California will have to release over 30,000 inmates from its prison system to comply with a Supreme Court ruling earlier today. The court cited chronic violations of inmates’ rights in its 5-4 decision. The reductions will improve the delivery of health care services to the remaining inmates, claims the majority:
The Supreme Court on Monday endorsed a court order requiring California to cut its prison population by tens of thousands of inmates to improve health care for those who remain behind bars.
The court said in a 5-4 decision that the reduction is “required by the Constitution” to correct longstanding violations of inmates’ rights. The order mandates a prison population of no more than 110,000 inmates, still far above the system’s designed capacity.
There are more than 142,000 inmates in the state’s 33 adult prisons, meaning roughly 32,000 inmates will need to be transferred to other jurisdictions or released.
Anthony Kennedy joined the four liberal jurists in the decision, while the four conservatives were aghast at the implications. Calling the ruling “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history,” Antonin Scalia’s dissent predicted a higher number of releases, 46,000. Those may end up going to county jurisdictions rather than state prisons, or perhaps sent to other states with more room in their penal system, but that will cost California money the state simply doesn’t have.
The immediate effect of the order will almost certainly be a large-scale release. That will increase pressure on an already-overburdened parole system and send career criminals back to ply their trade in communities throughout the state — and the country. The increased costs on communities won’t help the state improve medical care to prisoners; it’s more likely to sap the state’s treasury.
This poses other questions as well. What is California supposed to do with convicts now? If they can’t add to the current level of inmates, then they’re going to have to release even more on a one-for-one basis, putting revolving doors on the prisons again. The same will be true in other states, which had joined California in opposing the order, which now have to operate under a new Supreme Court mandate on prison populations.
The state could build more prisons, which would solve the problem. Unfortunately, California spent its money on practically everything but new prisons over the last few decades. The average age of their prisons was 55 years in 2009’s report from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. California has a responsibility to invest in its prison infrastructure, as well as a responsibility to provide for the safety and basic health needs of its inmates. But the Supreme Court has its own responsibility to keep criminals from victimizing their communities, too. This looks like a big failure all the way around.