Friday, December 3, 2010

All the prisoners that will fit

Earlier this week, there was a flurry of articles about California's overcrowded prisons, and how that didn't bother Gov. Arnold (or, one presumes, many other Californians) one bit. The overcrowding has been in and out of the news over the past decade, but in the courts consistently. The case Schwarzenegger v. Plata has finally reached the Supreme Court, hence the current spate of articles.

The most influential jurist along the way has been Federal District Judge Thelton Henderson, an African American who is Google-worthy in his own right. In 2004 he threatened to take over the California corrections system, and in 2006 he got fed up and made good on it, putting prison health care into receivership. In 2007, the Supreme Court weighed in by saying California judges did not have enough discretion in sentencing. Since then, the state has made a show of adjusting sentencing laws and new prison construction, but Judge Henderson says they're foot-dragging and that he's not going anywhere anytime soon.

Here's one sample from this week. I like the Ifills, so this is from The Root:

In a case before the Supreme Court, California Gov. Schwarzenegger is arguing that judges have no right to tell states to reduce their prison populations.
By: Sherrilyn A. Ifill | Posted: November 29, 2010 at 6:05 PM

America's prisons, like many of our public schools, reflect our country's most shameful and profound failings. This week the U.S. Supreme Court takes on one aspect of our nation's love affair with incarceration.

In Schwarzenegger v. Plata, the state of California has challenged an order issued by a three-judge federal court under the Prison Reform Litigation Act, which requires the state to reduce its prison population to deal with overcrowding. The court found that overpopulation is directly responsible for the failure of the California system to provide inmates with adequate physical and mental health services. California argues that the prison reduction order issued by the three-judge court under the PRLA goes beyond the scope of the statute and infringes on the state's power.

This case is likely to play out before the court and in the media as a battle over states' rights -- in this case, the right of the state of California to manage its own prison system -- and against the encroachment of federal judges supplanting the judgment of elected leaders with their own version of appropriate public policy. Indeed, 18 states have joined in a brief supporting the state of California and making this very argument.

But there's much more at stake in this case than the age-old "state sovereignty versus federal courts" story. In fact, the federal court's prison reduction order in this case is something of a last resort -- imposed only after eight years in which the state of California, while conceding the unconstitutional overcrowding in its prison system, has failed to reduce its prison population. The Plata suit stems from an action filed back in 2001. The state conceded in 2002 that prison overcrowding threatened the constitutional rights of prisoners...

Much more at the link!


CNu said...

I was summoned to provide a little niche-specific subject matter expertise in the matters that put the California prison healthcare system into receivership.

If you're have any awareness whatsoever of the institutional and systemic awfulness pervading failing public school systems, you can only begin to imagine the tip of the iceberg of meta-Dickensian inhumanity pervasive within and across the prison-industrial complex.

Thanks muchly for the heads-up about the Hon.Judge Henderson.

ProfGeo said...

This exchange has put Judge Henderson's documentary bio back on my front burner. Will be watching it this gray afternoon!

CNu said...

It's too bad the Hon.Judge Henderson is 77 years old. That's kind of a sad commentary on how attenuated the ranks of Black federal point sources of influence and power have become that this man finds himself still standing in the breach at such an advanced age.