By Bill Boyarsky
Much as it did with the South regarding segregated schools and other public facilities in the Jim Crow days, the Supreme Court has ordered a recalcitrant California to obey the Constitution. Finding that the state violated the Eighth Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment, the high court told California to end the inhumane conditions of a prison system overcrowded with inmates who are mostly African-Americans and Latinos.
It was an amazing decision for this conservative Supreme Court. The impact could well reach throughout the country. The decision raises the standard for prisoner care, opening the way for lawsuits in other states that egregiously mistreat inmates. And it was a rare victory for inmates, their families and the lonely advocates for prisoners’ rights. The case, Brown, Governor of California, et al v. Plata et al, won’t be as famous as Brown v. Board of Education, the great school desegregation decision. But it may bring some relief to thousands of society’s despised—the many victims of racist police, prosecutors, courts and prisons.
The author of the 5-4 opinion was Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. A conservative, he has been the vote swinging between Supreme Court liberals and conservatives. This time, he joined with the more liberal faction to rule on a situation with which he may be somewhat familiar as a California lawyer, constitutional law professor and appellate judge.
Kennedy’s opinion ordering California to reduce its prison population of 143,000 by more than 33,000 didn’t mention the racial aspect, although race should be part of every discussion of prison life. Rather, he wrote of the intense suffering the overcrowding had caused to mentally and physically ill prisoners. Such inmates initiated the lawsuits that brought the issue to the Supreme Court.
He declared California had long failed to meet inmates’ “basic health needs.” In a stinging rebuke to his native state, Kennedy wrote, “Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.”
California has long lost its luster as a progressive state or an admirable example to the rest of the country; instead, it is now often an illustration of how not to do things. Nowhere is this truer than in the combination of police, courts and prisons known as the criminal justice system.
Beginning in the late 1960s, an epidemic of fear of crime swept through the country. Whatever the reason, politicians reacted by imposing excessive sentences and the federal government launched the “war on drugs.”
No state was more enthusiastic than California. Sentences were increased and more prisons were built. Pork-barrel politics and cheap land put them in economically strapped rural areas. The prison replaced the public university as a symbol of California. Anyone driving through rural California could see them, but few motorists were interested enough to look closely.
I’ve always felt there is a great hypocrisy in California, the sunshine exterior masking a dark underside. This is particularly true in the field of crime and prisons. While California’s business, political and cultural leaders bask in the glories of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, real estate and sunshine, the state is on a disastrous course.
Voters and legislators limited taxes and at the same time increased criminal penalties, passing the draconian three-strikes law. The law imposes a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of a felony if the person has two previous felonies. In many California counties, law-and-order district attorneys made a third offense a felony even if was a nonviolent offense, such as stealing a pizza, golf clubs or videos. The law gives them that latitude.
Meanwhile, police engaged in the war on drugs repeatedly moved into poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods, sweeping up dealers, minor offenders and even those who had committed no offense at all.
The prison population swelled. Meanwhile, a new political force emerged, the prison guards union. Raising money from its rapidly increasing membership, the union fought any attempt to ease the penalties or put nonviolent offenders on parole, paying for the campaigns of supporters and attacking their critics. While state costs for prisons increased, taxes were reduced. Inmates were stuffed into prisons, and African-American and Latino neighborhoods were decimated. But imprisoned neighborhood crime bosses were still able to run their enterprises from prison—and run some of the prisons, too.
Kennedy detailed the results in many graphic passages in his opinion. One of them: “Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic. Prison officials explained they had ‘no place to put him.’ ”
There are solutions to this. Nonviolent offenders, including those imprisoned on three-strike charges, could be paroled. Others not ready for parole could be shifted to county jails near home and possibly be made eligible for early release. In fact, Gov. Jerry Brown supports legislation to accomplish this although there is no state money to pay the counties for the additional prisoners. And—of course this would not happen in this punitive age—the excessive sentencing laws could be made more sensible and humane.
The Supreme Court gave California two years to obey the Constitution’s Bill of Rights ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state that dreamed up Hollywood and Silicon Valley will be forced to figure this one out.
AP / California Department of Corrections
Inmates sit in crowded conditions at the California Institute for Men in Chino, Calif.