U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy criticized California sentencing policies and crowded prisons Wednesday night, calling the influence that unionized prison guards had in passing the three-strikes law "sick."
In an otherwise courtly and humorous address to the Los Angeles legal community, Kennedy expressed obvious dismay over the state of corrections and rehabilitation in the country. He said U.S. sentences are eight times longer than those issued by European courts.
"California now has 185,000 people in prison at $32,500 a year" each, he said. He then urged voters and officials to compare that expense to what taxpayers spend per pupil in elementary schools.
"The three-strikes law sponsor is the correctional officers' union and that is sick!" Kennedy said of the measure mandating life sentences for third-time criminal offenders.
Kennedy wrote the high court's controversial Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling last month and was bombarded with written questions on the 5-4 vote that fundamentally changed campaign spending laws.
But he sidestepped the audience's efforts to draw him out on that decision, which frees corporations -- and presumably unions -- to spend as they wish on campaigns and candidates that were once limited to accepting individual voter contributions.
Kennedy would say only that it was "important to have robust, principled debate after opinions," and suggested that was best left to the legal community.
One questioner asked: "Does Justice Kennedy feel scolded?" It was an apparent reference to President Obama's warning that the ruling opens the door to Big Business drowning out the voices of the electorate with lavish and targeted campaign spending.
"He doesn't," Kennedy said cryptically, spurring laughter throughout the packed auditorium at Pepperdine University's School of Law.