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How Can Cash-Strapped California Comply With Supreme Court Ruling On Prisons?

Publication Date: 
May 26, 2011
The Christian Science Monitor
Daniel B. Wood

Professor Joan Petersilia spoke with Daniel B. Wood of The Christian Science Monitor about the US Supreme Court's ruling to downsize the California's prison population, and why local agencies may be the state's best bet in solving the crisis.

As California struggles to close its budget gap, officials and analysts are worried the state won’t be able to find the money to finance measures to comply with the US Supreme Court order this week to downsize the state’s prison population by 33,000 inmates.

As the state’s chief executive, Gov. Jerry Brown is taking the lead on California’s response to the Supreme Court ruling that the overcrowding in state prisons violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The 5-to-4 decision upheld a 2009 ruling by a three-judge panel in California ordering the state to reduce its prison population to 110,000, or 137 percent of capacity.

Anticipating such a ruling, Governor Brown last month signed a measure (AB 109) that would shift thousands of low-level offenders to county jails and other community-based programs and facilities. But the shifts are contingent on voter approval of a constitutional amendment that would pay for moving the prisoners by hiking income, sales, and vehicle taxes.

Brown’s realignment plan provides that nonviolent, non-serious and non-sex criminal offenders serve time in county jails instead of state prison. Joan Petersilla, a law professor at Stanford and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center in Palo Alto, says local agencies, if properly funded, can supervise and treat such criminals better than the state.

“With this plan, California will have a less crowded prison system, which would go a long way toward meeting the concerns of federal judges,” Professor Petersilla wrote in an op-ed piece on She notes that California spends nearly $9 billion on corrections annually – about $50,000 per prisoner, more than twice the national average – and that two-thirds of state prisoners are returned to prison within three years, nearly twice the national rate.

“Indeed, a silver lining in California’s budget crisis is that it created a consensus between factions in the 20-year debate over correctional practices in California – that we must both spend more wisely and promote rehabilitation to start closing that revolving prison door.”