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Opinion: California's Prison-Litigation Nightmare

Publication Date: 
October 29, 2013
The Wall Street Journal - Opinion
Heather Mac Donald

The Wall Street Journal quotes Stanford Law Professor Joan Petersilia on possible solutions for prison overcrowding. 

California Gov. Jerry Brown and the federal judiciary are locked in a dramatic constitutional battle over control of the state's prisons. In 2009, three federal judges issued what Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has dubbed "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history": an order that California release up to 40,000 prisoners within two years to correct allegedly unconstitutional prison health care.

California has since spent more than $1 billion on new prison medical facilities, brought its correctional health care far above constitutional standards, and shed more inmates than are housed in all but a few states. Yet the judges show no sign of relinquishing their hold. California's recent sharp increase in property crime—a rise eight times greater than the national average—may be one consequence of the judicial intervention.


In response, Gov. Brown and the Democrats in the state legislature passed what Stanford law school Prof. Joan Petersilia has called the "biggest penal experiment in modern history." Assembly Bill 109, known as "realignment," would lower the prison count by sentencing felony property and drug offenders to county jail instead of state prison. The bill also virtually eliminates parole supervision—a perverse but simple solution to the alleged problem of too many parolees winding up back in prison for parole violations.