The Supreme Court Declares California’s Prisons Overcrowded
The United States Supreme Court’s ruling Monday requiring the early release of tens of thousands of California prison inmates may be, as Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his fiery dissent, a “staggering” and “radical” event in the annals of law. But it comes as no surprise to people (in and out of the criminal justice system) who long have been chronicling atrocious prison conditions around the country. And it surely marks a nadir in America’s persistently zealous efforts to imprison its citizens: We still lead the world in that category by far.
It was left to Justice Anthony Kennedy, a native of Sacramento and a graduate of Stanford University, to finally do the dirty work that has long needed to be done; to hold accountable lawmakers and prison officials who have tarried for decades in providing state prisoners with a constitutionally acceptable level of care and living conditions. In Brown v. Plata, one of the most important and contentious cases of the term, Justice Kennedy provided the critical fifth vote, the swing vote, to affirm a rare affirmative injunction issued by a special three-judge panel ordering as a last resort some 37,000 prisoners to be released through a variety of measures.
Here, at last, after decades of short-sighted policy, comes the butcher’s bill for the war on drugs, the state’s dubious three-strikes law, and the magnetizing political pull of victims’ rights groups. And it was delivered to the Golden State by the only tribunal in America with the power and the authority to speak on behalf of the nation’s last lobbyless constituency — our nation’s prisoners.