High court's ruling could lead to prison overhaul
Associated Press | 6/1/2011, 12:58 a.m.
ATLANTA — The U.S. Supreme Court decision that ordered California to drastically reduce its prison population to relieve severe overcrowding could encourage some states with bloated corrections systems to overhaul tough-on-crime policies that have led to stiffer sentences, law enforcement officials and experts said.
The court’s 5-4 ruling last week concluded the reduction of about 33,000 inmates was needed to correct sometimes deadly lapses in medical care. Advocates of sentencing reform say California is an example of what could happen if states don’t adopt alternative programs for those convicted of drug offenses and non-violent crimes.
“It should provide even more impetus for other states already working on sentencing and corrections reform to understand that if they don’t get our own acts in order, the federal courts will force them to do so,” said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and expert on sentencing law.
“This is yet more of a reason why these reforms are critical to head off these kinds of dramatic showdowns in court,” he said.
The soaring costs of housing state inmates have already led lawmakers in at least 22 states — many of them already facing tight budgets — to consider unraveling years of policies designed to imprison more lawbreakers and keep them behind bars longer.
The high court’s ruling upheld an order by a three-judge federal court in 2009 that required the prison population to be reduced to 110,000 inmates.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the state had little choice but to reduce its inmate population because of the squalid conditions of the prison system, which violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“The violations have persisted for years. They remain uncorrected,” wrote Kennedy, who noted the court challenge was filed in 1990.
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia blasted the ruling as “absurd” and said he feared it will lead to more criminals on the streets.
His fears were echoed in a motion filed by the attorneys general in 18 other states in September. They urged the court not to “forget the hard-earned lessons of history” of other large-scale prisoner releases.
They cited a mandatory cap placed on Philadelphia’s prisons between 1986 and 1995 that required officials to release those charged with some non-violent crimes when the prison population topped 3,750.
It led to a crime wave of rapes, assaults and murders, including the death of a police officer gunned down by a recently-released prisoner, the motion said. “Many of the victims of those crimes were residents of the crime-plagued inner city neighborhoods, whose suffering all too often escapes the notice of decision makers.”
But many law enforcement advocates, although frustrated the Supreme Court intervened, said the silver lining is that it may prompt state legislators to keep more low-level offenders out of prison.
Marc Levin of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation said it gives him an opening to push sentencing reforms overhauls with Ohio, Nebraska and other states with overcrowded prison systems.