California Prisoners, Politicians Ponder Impact of Supreme Court Ruling

BY Spencer Michels  July 13, 2011 at 2:20 PM EDT

California Men's Colony; Creative Commons photo courtesy flickr.com/javan

California Men’s Colony; Creative Commons photo courtesy flickr.com/javan

Prisoners probably pay more attention to the news – at least some of the news -than many of the rest of us. They have a lot of time on their hands. So it’s no wonder that the rumor mills at California’s Solano State Prison and at the other 32 state prisons are bubbling with speculation about what will happen to the state’s 143,000 inmates in light of a recent court ruling. That’s what cameraman Jason Lelchuk and I found on a visit to Solano for the PBS NewsHour.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the prisoners something to hope for when it ordered California to cut 10,000 inmates from the prison population by November, and another 33,000 within two years. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion that persistent overcrowding caused “needless suffering and death” and was unconstitutional because it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuits that the court settled – and the controversy over what to do about California’s deplorable prisons — had been pending for two decades.

California reacted in an interesting way. While the state had fought the lawsuits and that the court shouldn’t be telling a sovereign state how to administer its prisons, some state officials actually believe the court order could lead to a better system. For years, the battle has raged over how to treat prisoners, how many prisons to build, how tough the sentencing laws should be, who should be released from prison and where should they go. It was partly an ideological debate: get tough on crime vs. reform the system and help rehabilitate felons and keep non-violent offenders out of prisons. The debate never got resolved because of the strong and contrasting political views of legislators.

Now the state is under orders to do something, and it’s already begun. In fact, it began before the court decision. What Gov. Jerry Brown and his administration promise not to do is release early inmates already serving time in prison. That word either hasn’t gotten to the prisoners at Solano, or they don’t believe it. And in fact, the dissenting Supreme Court justices were skeptical as well. Justice Samuel Alito said he feared the majority decision “will lead to a grim roster of victims.” Justice Antonin Scalia called the decision “what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.” And he added, “Terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order.”

What already happened is that about 10,000 prisoners have been transferred to prisons out of state, prior to the court’s decision. Now, under a new law supported by Governor Brown, some inmates convicted of non-violent crimes and sentenced to three years or less will serve their time in county jails, rather that state prison.

Matthew Cate, the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is in charge of the big changes. And he thinks something good may come of them

The governor promised he would fund the additional burden for county sheriffs -as their jail population increases, and probation departments – as their caseloads increase. More felons will be released into the community as the already-crowded jails fill up even more. The communities will be expected to keep an eye on their probationers, provide them will classes and other means to reintegrate into society. Everyone agrees there will be some problems as more felons are released. But even those who fought the lawsuits seem optimistic.

Jerry Powers, the chief probation officer of Stanislaus County, put it this way:

I’m unhappy that it came down the way it did, although I think it may ultimately result in a better system from front-to-back for California… We send these people into the back end of the system, and they come out worse than when we sent them in.

And the sheriff in San Mateo County, whose jail is already over its designed capacity, agrees:

I think we can do a better job at the county level than what’s been occurring at the state. Keeping these individuals closer to the community, keeping them closer to their families, keeping them and connecting them with community based resources that they’re going to need when they get out.

Since the state prisoners can’t realistically expect early release, perhaps the one thing they can hope for is less-crowded prisons with more medical facilities. The fact that the state is actively looking for ways to change a system that everyone agrees has been broken could signal a new more enlightened approach to sentencing and incarceration. So prison reformers have hopes that the high court may have started something that they’ve been pushing for decades.