Don’t blame US Supreme Court for prison ruling 

In the Assembly last week, legislators praised ethnic studies departments and had long-winded debates before voting to ban the trading of shark fins in California. But while the state government becomes ever-more meddlesome in ever-expanding areas of private life, it’s increasingly clear that the Legislature and the state bureaucracies are incapable of handling even the most basic and important responsibilities that come before them.

One of the basics is public safety. Government is not supposed to manage the economy and socially engineer our lives; it is supposed to arrest and lock up criminals. But the U.S. Supreme Court had to step in Monday because the state government’s handling of the prison system has become abusive and unconstitutional. As the court explained, “California’s prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but at the time of the decision under review the population was almost double that.”

Years go by and nothing changes in the state prison system. The conditions are horrendous. No one is thrilled to have the U.S. Supreme Court step in and order the state to (potentially) release inmates — a frightening prospect that could, as dissenting Judge Samuel Alito put it, amount to “gambling with the safety of the people of California.” The court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 30,000 inmates, to bring it down to 137.5 percent of the system’s capacity.

Prisoners could be housed in county jails, for instance, but knowing how the state government operates, it’s likely that many prisoners will be released — and it’s not likely to be only those who are suffering medical problems, given the inability of bureaucrats to make meaningful distinctions.

“The Supreme Court today chose to ignore the devastating impact that a population cap would have on our communities and instead paved the way for the early release of tens of thousands of dangerous criminals,” said Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway of Tulare. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, siding with the four more liberal justices, wrote an impassioned majority opinion that detailed the dismal state of affairs in the prison system: “Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets.”

The problem lies with our own state government’s nearly criminal incompetence. As Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, explained, “The Legislature acted in 2007 to pass a $3.5 billion bond package to finance the construction of new prisons, yet four years later not a single new facility has been built. Bureaucracy and failure to act has caused the construction projects to stall and led the state to this court decision. While I disagree completely with the ruling, I’m not surprised with the court’s action, as California was warned in 2007. … Now is the time for a sober assessment and action — not more stalling and calling for taxes. There is no reason why California needs to spend twice as much per prisoner to incarcerate felons than other states.”

If our legislators and governors weren’t so subservient to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association — the prison guards union — we could more successfully send inmates out of state, or privatize the prison system here, save money, root out abuses and reduce the problem.

Once again, the public will suffer for the failure of the bureaucrats, the selfishness of the unions and the incompetence of the legislators. Don’t blame the U.S. Supreme Court for the disaster that might befall the state.

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Steven Greenhut

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