Sunday, June 5, 2011

Presidential Appointments to the Supreme Court Make a Big Difference

The United States Supreme Court just handed down a decision (the result of a 5-4 vote), that has ordered the State of California to end it’s prison over-crowding or release 46,000 convicted criminals within 2 years.

The decision came because of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU which pointed out California prison system currently houses 143,000 prisoners but is designed for only 80,000. The result, according to their statistics, from the overcrowding and the shortage of adequate medical staff, is that an inmate dies needlessly every 6 to 7 days. If true, this is outrageous. You need to remember that the majority of these inmates are not violent criminals. The vast majority are doing time for personal possession and drug use and white collar crimes. They do not deserve to be living under conditions in which one dies every 6 or 7 days from lack of care.

On the other hand, the mass release of prisoners is not a good solution. Had there been a Republican President instead of Barak Obama, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan would not have been appointed and Justices more in the mold of John Roberts or Sam Alito would have. This would have changed this decision to a 6-3 vote the other way. In this case the majority decision would have looked at the release of prisoners as a solution and would have remembered the result of a similar finding back in the 1990’s. Alito, in a separate dissent, wrote: "In the early 1990s, federal courts enforced a cap on the number of inmates in the Philadelphia prison system, and thousand of inmates were set free. Although efforts were made to release only those prisoners who were least likely to commit violent crimes, that attempt was spectacularly unsuccessful. During an 18-month period, the Philadelphia police rearrested thousands of these prisoners for committing 9,732 new crimes. Those defendants were charged with 79 murders, 90 rapes, 1,113 assaults, 959 robberies, 701 burglaries and 2,748 thefts, not to mention thousands of drug offenses."

The overcrowding and resultant loss of life is something which definitely needs to be addressed, prisoners can not, by definition, look out for their own welfare so the State, as custodian of that prisoner, has to accept that responsibility. Please understand, I am not advocating for soft treatment for convicted criminals. I am simply saying that California needs to think and spend it’s limited resources better. Perhaps, given the situation, more of the budget should be spent on housing and medical support then on exercise equipment and entertainment (TV’s, movies, shows, etc…). Prisons should be hard and uncomfortable –but, by the same token, prisoners should be protected from abuse –from other prisoners and from the system. Releasing prisoners prematurely is not the answer, more efficient use of public funds is.

Live Long and Prosper....

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