Three-Headed Bully: Three-Judge Panel Mandates Release of Thousands of Calif. Criminals

Courtney O'Brien

8/17/2009 4:15:52 PM - Courtney O'Brien

In early August, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered California to reduce its prison population by 40,000 inmates in the next two years. This is the largest federally mandated state prison reduction order ever forced over the objection of state officials. This blatant usurpation of states’ rights is not only unconstitutional, but dangerous to the public safety of Californians.

Senator John J. Benoit (R-CA), Vice-Chair of the California State Senate Public Safety Committee, responded to the order: “As a 31 year law enforcement veteran, I can say from experience that unleashing tens of thousands of prisoners into our communities is a horrible way to accomplish anything except higher crime rates,” stated Senator Benoit. “This ruling by activist federal judges is an egregious and dangerous violation of states’ rights that I believe the Supreme Court will overturn.”

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The federal court claims authority under the Prison Litigation Reform Act which was enacted by Congress in 1996 as a means to protect the states from frivolous prisoner lawsuits. Advocates of both federalism and judicial restraint supported the act because it would hinder federal intervention into an already overburdened state corrections system. The original act was never intended to have such broad interpretation to allow it to be used in such a way.

The federal order demands the release of mass numbers of prisoners, and recommends policy in which to “safely” do so. Policy such as “good time credits” which would release prisoners early based on credit obtained by participating in rehabilitative, education, or work programs. Other recommendations included shortening the length and limiting the use of parole, and reducing the arrest of technical parole violators. Similar proposals have been introduced in the past by Gov. Schwarzenegger, as well as the transferring of illegal immigrant inmates to federal custody, and the construction of more prisons .The federal court’s ruling and usurpation of states’ rights regarding California’s corrections system sets a dangerous precedent.

Across the country, Michigan is facing the potential closing of eight prisons and has declared seven jail overcrowding emergencies—will the federal court demand the early release of thousands of prisoners there as well? Ohio’s prisons are at 132 percent capacity, will the state have control over the fate of their corrections system? Effective policy is needed, but whose? The answer is explicit in the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution, which puts the power in the state’s hands. But when a bully feels the power of victory once, they often search for others to attack on the playground.

Speaking of playgrounds, the early release of 40,000 inmates means their return to almost every local community. The federal three-judge court believes that public safety will not be threatened because of the requirements, collection of good credits, that must be fulfilled before early release, and because the parole system will take on a “gradual increase” of cases to maintain accountability. But if California’s correction system is failing to even provide basic healthcare services, why should the public trust that their “good credit program will work? Prisoners can barely see a doctor to receive care, let alone a counselor.

In addition, the mass release of inmates will strain an already overburden parole/probation system. The court’s answer: that the effect will be “mitigated by the gradual release of prisoners” into the parole program. How is the release of 40,000 prisoners in two years, gradual? According to a study conducted by PEW Charitable Trusts, funding struggles throughout the nation have stretched parole staffing extremely thin, leading to inflated caseloads: 60 offenders per officer. Nationally the system is suffering, and so is California’s. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, over half of those released on parole returned to prison for reoffending in 2008. An increase to the parole population of 32 percent over two years will not keep crime rates stagnant, and will certainly not reduce it—especially if inmates are unable to receive proper care and treatment in their short stay behind bars.

Federal judges ordering the mass release of inmates from state prisons, tramples on the right of states to establish their own public safety laws and is possibly unconstitutional. Furthermore, these released prisoners will pose a huge threat to the safety of local communities in California. Prison overcrowding in California has reached an impasse and new avenues must be pursued, but the mass release of prisoners is not the answer. This drastic overstepping of power by the federal government onto states’ rights has set a dangerous precedent that should be challenged by California in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.