California Prison Reform: Too Little Too Late?

By Caleb Groos on September 14, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last Friday, the California legislature passed legislation that will cut money from the prison system's budget and reduce the number of inmates in its overcrowded prisons by an estimated 16,000. But will it be enough to satisfy a federal court order that the state submit a plan to reduce the number of inmates by more than 40,000?

As discussed here previously, last month a panel of federal judges issued an order mandating that California present a plan to cut the population in the state's vastly overcrowded prisons by over 40,000 inmates. The order came after years of litigation, lack of response to ordered improvements, and findings that conditions in California prisons that violate the US Constitution stem from enormous overcrowding.

The state's plan is due to the feds by this Friday. The specter looming over not satisfying the federal panel's order is possible federal intervention into California's prison system to make the required changes for the state.

After weeks of bickering and posturing, California's legislature passed a bill last Friday that according to the New York Times will cut $1 billion from the state's prison budget. The LA Times reports that this will still leave California's prison system $200 million in the red.

Legislative officials estimate that the plan will reduce the prison population by 20,000 to 25,000 over two years. The New York Times pegs the reduction number at 16,000 inmates. Either way, it's far short of more than 40,000 required under last month's federal order.

At the same time, the US Supreme Court rejected California's appeal of the order. However, the appeal was rejected not on its merits, but because the Supreme Court viewed it as premature. Last month's order only requires a plan from California. Though the state vigorously argues against the legality of federal intervention into its prison system, the Supreme Court will be much more likely to take up the case if and when the federal court issues a final order requiring specific changes (rather than the current order requiring only a plan).

Whether the planned reduction of 16,000 or 20,000 inmates will be enough to satisfy last month's order remains to be seen. Last month's order noted the number of California prisons operating at double or triple capacity. Trimming 16,000 out of almost 160,000 won't go a long way in reducing overcrowding.

Making fewer than half of the required inmate reductions while slashing the budget for the prisons may well leave the federal court less than assuaged that conditions in California's prisons will be brought up to bare minimal Constitutional standards. An eventual showdown at the Supreme Court looks possible.

Copied to clipboard