The shame of California's prisons

Now that a panel of three federal judges is calling for California to cut its prison population by as much as a third, effectively ruling that our dysfunctional state government is incapable of overseeing the prison system, it makes us wonder what other legislative duties could be delegated to the judiciary. Redistricting? Schools? The budget process? It wouldn't exactly be democratic, but it would beat the anarchy in Sacramento.


FOR THE RECORD:
Prisons: A Thursday editorial implied that the correctional facility in Lompoc is a state prison. It is a federal penitentiary. —


The judicial order on prisons isn't final and can be appealed, but it's an unmistakable statement about how spectacularly our lawmakers have failed. California's prison conditions are so bad, and the standard of medical care that inmates receive is so poor, that the state is violating protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. In other words, you don't have to go to Guantanamo Bay to find abuses of human rights and American law -- just go to Lompoc.

California's prisons were designed to hold 84,000 inmates but now hold 158,000. This isn't a new problem; the overcrowding crisis has been worsening for decades, and expert panels have repeatedly told lawmakers how to solve it. The 1990 Blue Ribbon Commission on Inmate Population Management recommended changes to mandatory sentencing rules and parole policies that have been reaffirmed many times since, most recently in a report from the Little Hoover Commission in 2007. These reforms are designed to reduce the prison population without increasing crime, by focusing state resources on the truly dangerous inmates and giving less supervision to those who aren't much of a threat. Yet they have never been implemented by the Legislature because members are terrified that doing so would make them look soft on crime.

Of course, it will take more than sentencing and parole reforms to make our prison system sustainable. It will also take money. Some of the state burden will shift to counties as inmates are sent to community rehabilitation facilities, built and maintained with taxpayer dollars. That will probably infuriate voters, who continually pass get-tough-on-crime laws such as November's Proposition 9 ("Marsy's Law") yet don't want to pay higher taxes to cover the added costs. Because politicians lack the courage to end this cycle, it fell to a panel of judges to do the job.

Rather than cooperating with the panel's decision, California corrections officials plan to appeal it. Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown have filed a motion to end court oversight of prison healthcare even though conditions still don't meet constitutional standards, thus fighting to maintain a status quo that's a national disgrace. Case closed, your honors -- throw the book at them.

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