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Can You Hear Us Now? The Supremes and California Prisons

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court order that California must reduce its prison population by approximately 33,000 inmates.  I believe the Court is encroaching on territory that belongs to the California Assembly. Unfortunately, years of political pandering and bad correctional policy choices made the Court’s ruling all but inevitable. So, it was wrong method, right result.

Justice Kennedy’s majority decision paid special attention to the facts and with good reason: The facts describe a system so overcrowded, so dangerous and so out-of-control that it shocks the conscience. Or at least it should.

It’s not simply that the system currently houses 142,000 inmates in a system designed to house 80,000 — it’s that the overcrowding makes basic regard for human decency and dignity next-to-impossible. As Justice Kennedy pointed out, accommodating that many prisoners means more than double or triple bunking, it requires turning every bit of available space, including clinics, into dorms. There is one toilet for 54 inmates; disease is so rampant that “one prisoner dies needlessly every six to seven days.”

The impact on the mental health of prisoners is even worse: mentally-ill prisoners are “often housed in ‘tiny, phone-booth sized cages;’” suicide rates are “well above national norms;” as much as one every week. The Court was right to rule that this status quo is “incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in a civilized society.” What makes this even more outrageous was that it was avoidable.

I know because for 20 years Justice Fellowship and I have been speaking out about California’s corrections crisis. We warned California voters and politicians that the “three strikes” ballot would overload the prison system. We told them that simply building more prisons with ever expanding payrolls and costs would only speed the state toward bankruptcy.

We were right and then some. Only this time, instead of years, California has weeks to come up with a plan. But apparently, California’s “goal is to not release inmates at all.” Instead, it plans to reduce prison populations by sending parole violators and non-violent offenders to county jails.

Good luck with that: California jails are already overcrowded, and this plan is contingent on paying local jails to take the prisoners with money California doesn’t have. Get real!

Eventually, California is going to have to do what it should have done a long time: rethink the way it does criminal justice. It simply has no legal or financial choice. It must decide who really needs to be in prison and who can be punished and supervised safely in the community, where they can repay the victims of their crimes.

It’s also going to need help from groups like Prison Fellowship. As my colleague Pat Nolan, a former Republican leader in the California State Assembly, has pointed out, through our in-prison and post-prison programs like Out4Life, "Prison Fellowship is working closely with state corrections departments to ensure that released inmates will be good neighbors and not a danger to our communities."

This kind of public-private cooperation is an essential part of a cost-effective solution to the overcrowding crisis.

The question is: is the Golden state ready to listen this time?

This article published on June 6, 2011. Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. 

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