Wednesday, December 1, 2010

California Scrutinized by Supreme Court

Max Whittaker for The New York Times
California's prison system is so packed -- and its health care so poor -- that a federal court has held that prison conditions there violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  The federal court's solution:  it ordered California to release about 40,000 inmates.  That court order is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Schwarzenegger v. Plata, and this Sacramento Bee article does a nice job explaining how the justices narrowed in on what's at stake, in yesterday's oral arguments:
In a closely watched case, Republican appointees challenged the proposed prisoner release plan as a threat to public safety while Democratic appointees suggested it was necessary to alleviate horrific penal conditions. ... 
"When are you going to avoid the needless deaths?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Carter G. Phillips, the attorney representing California. "When are you going to avoid or get around people sitting in their own feces for days in a dazed state?" ... 
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. added his own conservative-tinted concern about activist judges taking over jobs best done by elected officials. "The point is, this is a budget prioritization that the state has to go through every day, and now it's being transferred from the state Legislature to federal district courts throughout the state," Roberts said skeptically.
What do you think?  If state legislators refuse to control prison overcrowding, should courts pick up the slack and do it for them?

Of course, California wouldn't have this mess on its hands if it adopted smart-on-crime policies instead of relying on long mandatory minimums like its infamous "three strikes" law.  Mandatory minimums fill prisons fast -- and as this case shows, full prisons produce their own special problems.