ATLANTA — The U.S. Supreme Court decision that ordered California to drastically reduce its prison population to relieve severe overcrowding could encourage some states with bloated corrections systems to overhaul tough-on-crime policies that have led to stiffer sentences, law enforcement officials and experts said.
The court’s 5-4 ruling last week concluded the reduction of about 33,000 inmates was needed to correct sometimes deadly lapses in medical care. Advocates of sentencing reform say California is an example of what could happen if states don’t adopt alternative programs for those convicted of drug offenses and non-violent crimes.
“It should provide even more impetus for other states already working on sentencing and corrections reform to understand that if they don’t get our own acts in order, the federal courts will force them to do so,” said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and expert on sentencing law.
“This is yet more of a reason why these reforms are critical to head off these kinds of dramatic showdowns in court,” he said.
The soaring costs of housing state inmates have already led lawmakers in at least 22 states — many of them already facing tight budgets — to consider unraveling years of policies designed to imprison more lawbreakers and keep them behind bars longer.
The high court’s ruling upheld an order by a three-judge federal court in 2009 that required the prison population to be reduced to 110,000 inmates.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the state had little choice but to reduce its inmate population because of the squalid conditions of the prison system, which violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“The violations have persisted for years. They remain uncorrected,” wrote Kennedy, who noted the court challenge was filed in 1990.
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia blasted the ruling as “absurd” and said he feared it will lead to more criminals on the streets.
His fears were echoed in a motion filed by the attorneys general in 18 other states in September. They urged the court not to “forget the hard-earned lessons of history” of other large-scale prisoner releases.
They cited a mandatory cap placed on Philadelphia’s prisons between 1986 and 1995 that required officials to release those charged with some non-violent crimes when the prison population topped 3,750.
It led to a crime wave of rapes, assaults and murders, including the death of a police officer gunned down by a recently-released prisoner, the motion said. “Many of the victims of those crimes were residents of the crime-plagued inner city neighborhoods, whose suffering all too often escapes the notice of decision makers.”
But many law enforcement advocates, although frustrated the Supreme Court intervened, said the silver lining is that it may prompt state legislators to keep more low-level offenders out of prison.
Marc Levin of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation said it gives him an opening to push sentencing reforms overhauls with Ohio, Nebraska and other states with overcrowded prison systems.
“California will be an example of how not to do things,” he said, citing the costs of the state’s three-strikes laws and other tough crackdowns. “We’re uncomfortable with courts taking matters into their own hands, but it does provide an impetus for states to get out in front of the process.”
Ohio’s prison officials hope to use the ruling to convince lawmakers to support a measure backed by Republican Gov. John Kasich that would allow non-violent criminals to serve time in community-based centers instead of state prisons.
The state’s inmate population is at 132 percent capacity and expected to add 3,000 more inmates by 2015, said Ohio prison system spokesman Carlo LoParo. Enacting the reform, which is pending in the state Senate, could save Ohio more than $78 million a year and reduce the need for several thousand prison beds, he said.
“We would rather have these offenders under sanctions and supervision on our terms, than have to release them under a court order,” LoParo said.
In California, the decision doesn’t mean the state is releasing a flood of inmates onto the streets. Shorter term inmates will leave prison before the court’s deadline expires and some low-level offenders will be diverted to local jails under the plan.
Some experts say other states should heed California as a warning and act while they still can.
The ruling is a chance for the states to shift prison spending toward better supervision of those on probation and parole, said Mark Kleiman, a UCLA public policy professor who specializes in drug-control policy and the criminal justice system.
“If they don’t want the federal courts messing with their prisons, then run decent prisons. This isn’t rocket science,” he said. “Your mother told you that if you didn’t play with your toys properly, she’d take them away. And that’s what they did.”
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner in Columbus, Ohio contributed to this report.