California Governor: We Don’t Need To Comply With Supreme Court Prison Overcrowding Order

California Gov. Jerry Brown

As the final deadline approaches in a Supreme Court order to reduce California prison overcrowding so severe it was deemed “cruel and unusual punishment,” California Gov. Jerry Brown says the state doesn’t need to comply with the order after all. In a press conference this week, Brown said “the prison emergency is over“:

California is a powerful state. We can run our own prisons. And by God, let those judges give us our prisons back. We’ll run them right. […]

We’ve got hundreds of lawyers wandering around the prisons looking for problems. […]

We’ve spent billions and billions of money that’s not going to child care, that’s not going to schools, that’s not going to higher ed. It’s going to gold plate, at this point, our prisons.

These are puzzling assertions in a state whose prison system was described by the U.S. Supreme Court just a year and a half ago as so overcrowded that it has perpetuated “severe and unlawful mistreatment of prisoners through grossly inadequate provision of medical and mental health care.”

While a “proclamation” issued by Brown rightly points out that prisoners are no longer housed in gymnasiums and triple bunks thanks to commendable progress, the facilities are anything but “gold plated.” Data since the 2011 ruling show that continued medical neglect caused 43 preventable deaths in a year, and that inmates in need of psychiatric hospitalization continue to be placed in “alternative locations” like infirmaries and holding cells. And while Brown asserts that the court order is forcing exorbitant state spending on prisons, a recent report on California corrections spending found that “fifty-five percent of the growth in corrections spending is the result of simply putting more people in jail.”

State officials have been pushing back against the order to reduce the population to 137.5 percent of capacity since at least August, when federal judges issued yet another order asking the state to find better ways to reduce its population. Officials said at the time that further population reduction was not the goal, and that the state’s investment in new medical facilities would achieve the goal of improved medical and mental health conditions.

But the U.S. Supreme Court specifically said in its 2011 ruling that “no other remedies” for improving medical and mental health conditions “have been found to be sufficient” other than reducing overcrowding. “Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

Setting aside Brown’s inflammatory rhetoric, his formal court motion arguing against population reduction also makes the more reasonable alternative argument that, even if California wanted to reduce its prison population, many of the remaining methods for doing so — granting low-risk inmates early release, shortening sentences and diverting more inmates to county jails — would require the court to authorize waivers of existing state laws. This is a remedy that the defendants also seek under the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

What Brown’s most recent motion reveals is that lasting reform of the U.S. system of mass incarceration will require both short-term solutions and permanent changes to sentencing and other criminal laws, of the sort Brown and other politicians are wary to publicly endorse in a culture of “tough-on-crime” law enforcers.