Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court once again reiterated its position on California’s prison overcrowding: It’s still not okay. The high court refused to temporarily block the latest federal court ruling that California must find a way to release 10,000 inmates by the end of the year to comply with a previous high court ruling that the state’s prison overpopulation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
But Gov. Jerry Brown is undeterred, and on Friday, he asked the Supreme Court for full review on the merits. It was the U.S. Supreme Court that ordered the state in 2011 to relieve overcrowding so severe that it violated the Eighth Amendment. At the time, the court set a goal for the state to reduce its population to 137.5 percent of capacity. The state has still not met that goal, but Brown has decided the state doesn’t have to. In January, with prisons still well over capacity and mental health treatment assessed at well below acceptable levels, Brown declared that the “prison emergency is over,” and that any further efforts toward complying with the court ruling would “gold plate” the state’s prisons. Since then, he has resisted calls from federal judges overseeing the case to implement recommendations.
This week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder joined the chorus of public officials recognizing the U.S. epidemic of mass incarceration, when he said, “It’s clear – as we come together today – that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” His office committed not to seek mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level drug offenders, mirroring the “smart” crime tactics that several individual states are already pursuing to relieve their prison populations. Particular cities in California have already taken a similar tack, committing not to pursue low-level drug offenders. But the state remains committed to setting its own incarceration policy.
California has no doubt already made incredible strides to reduce its prison population. Over the past two years, slight reductions in the overall U.S. prison population were attributed largely to California’s court-ordered reductions, achieved primarily by shifting many inmates from state prisons to county jails. But California had a long road to travel. Just two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court described the prison system as so overcrowded that it perpetuated “severe and unlawful mistreatment of prisoners through grossly inadequate provision of medical and mental health care.” Courts have repeatedly warned Brown that partial progress will not suffice to cure this constitutional violation, reiterating in a recent order:
Oddly, defendants appear to read the results of their partial compliance with the Order in a rather unusual manner. They argue that, because the Order thus far has been effective in making progress toward its ultimate objective, we should terminate it, call off the rest of the plan, and declare victory before defendants can meet the Order’s most important objective—to reduce the population to 137.5% design capacity and eliminate overcrowding as the primary cause of unconstitutional medical and mental health conditions.
That is not the way the judicial system, or any other national system, functions. Indeed, the effectiveness of the Order thus far is not an argument for vacating it, but rather an argument for keeping it in effect and continuing to make progress toward reaching its ultimate goal.