After almost a quarter-century, a legal battle over conditions in California prisons is nearing its end, and the state faces a choice: It can spend more on prisons, or it must incarcerate fewer people.
For years, California managed to have it both ways. Beginning in the 1980s, legislators and voters passed a succession of laws and initiatives mandating long sentences and ratcheting down opportunities for parole while failing to provide enough space and adequate medical care for the inmates.
The results were predictable.
By 2006, the state's prisons were crammed beyond twice their capacity, and the aforementioned litigation was headed to its inevitable conclusion — federal receivers running the prison health care system and a court order to reduce crowding.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently rejected the state's latest bid to postpone the day of reckoning. Using words including "defiance," "intransigence" and "deliberate failure" to describe the state's efforts so far, the judges affirmed a 2009 order to reduce the prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity — roughly 110,000 prisoners — by the end of the year.
Gov. Jerry Brown is pursuing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But he already lost there once, and there's little reason to expect a different outcome this time. That leaves Californians and their elected leaders to balance demands for tough sentences with the $8.9 billion expense of running a prison system that doesn't meet constitutional muster.
A new prison medical facility that opened this week will help. But with the state's crushing debt load, building more prisons isn't a cost-effective answer.
Despite the strong language employed by the judges, significant steps have been taken to address prison crowding, and those steps suggest a path toward an eventual resolution.
The inmate population has fallen from 144,000 to about 120,000 since realignment, the 2011 shift of nonviolent offenders to county jails. Voters eased pressure on the prisons by approving an initiative that restricts harsh three-strikes sentences to the most serious offenses.
There's reason to believe voters are willing to do more: In a Los Angeles Times-USC, 63 percent favored early release for low-level non-violent offenders, and 72 percent favored shorter sentences for minor crimes.