The Supreme Court affirmed a lower federal court order that requires the state of California to sharply reduce its prison population over the next two years in order to bring the facilities up to constitutional compliance.
The 5-4 decision, authored by Justice Kennedy mandates a prison population of no more than 110,000 inmates, down from approximately 143,000 when the suit was first filed. At the height of the problems the California penal system averaged a death a week, and to emphasize the inhumane conditions at the jails Justice Kennedy took the unusual step of including photos of overcrowding, including pictures of cages where mentally ill inmates were held while they waited for a bed.
The ruling comes with efforts in the state to send fewer people to prison, either by reducing sentences for some offenders, offering alternative sentencing programs for others and giving judges more discretion in sentencing.
Yet it is that judicial discretion that came under fire by both Justices Scalia and Alito in their dissent. Both argued that judges are ill-equipped to handle the kind of oversight this order provides for and, if left to their own discretion, will put the public safety at risk.
If the minority is concerned with judges’ running state penal systems, the obvious answer is to make sure our state legislatures appropriately fund our corrections system so that they can provide essential services such as basic health care without running the risk of violating fundamental constitutional protections. Or perhaps they could urge those legislators to re-think failed criminal justice policies like imprisoning hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug offenders to prevent the swelling of the prison populations to begin with.
photo courtesy of raipe via Flickr