The U.S. Supreme Court, on May 23rd, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, found that overcrowded conditions in California prisons violate the “cruel and unusual punishment” provision of the Constitution. In a decision that is being noted across the nation, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, described “a prison system that failed to deliver minimal care to prisoners with serious medical and mental health problems and produced “needless suffering and death.” [NY Times Article]
The Supreme Court orderred 30,000 inmates removed from the California prison system over the next two years, but did not indicate how that was to be achieved. Interestingly, Californiia Governor Jerry Brown, has recently signed reallignment legislation (that will take effect on July 1, 2011), that will make less serious felonies subject to extended county jail sentences, and less serious parolees subject to state court jurisdiction.
The coming together of the Supreme Court decision and the Governor’s reallignment policies is as close to a perfect storm as we are ever likely to see in the criminal justice system. Many states are operating under similar overcrowded conditions and subject the Supreme Court decree. There is now an opportunity to create a more rational, reasonable and effective community based sentencing policy for felons.
The most significant part of any such strategy will be the sentencing of less serious felons, anchoring them to their communties and providing a structured system for their supervision and reintegration into the community. Such a movement of prisoners and parolees to local venues (whether they be jail sentences and/or alternative sentences), is critical to cost-effective and humane treatment of the returning offender.
It’s clearly time to create a vision of how felons can best be supervised, treated and rehabilitated, and finally returned to being participating members of their communities.
[The Reentry Court Grant, available through BJA’S Second Chance Act would be an excellent place to begin creating that alternative vision]