Recently, the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about California's overcrowded state prison system. The case is significant because it touches on the fastest growing part of the state budget that has been out of state hands for many years.
At issue is whether the federal courts have the right to tell California how to run its prison system.
Last year, a three-member panel of the U.S. District Court of Appeals agreed with lawyers representing state prisoners that the overcrowded system operating at 175-percent of capacity amounted to "cruel and unusual punishment," which is prohibited in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The judges ordered California to release at least 40,000 prisoners within two years, bringing capacity down to about 133.4 percent. Of course, the state could always build additional prisons to reduce the bulging conditions. but where would officials get the money?
The state failed to act and appealed the order to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the issue now resides. Now the justices must decide whether to wade into the thorny question of prisoner treatment or accept conditions that have been described as intolerable.
The possible outcomes are not pleasant for either side. If the Supreme Court upholds the order to release the prisoners, local populations will howl about criminal elements invading their communities. If the state is ordered to build new prisons, the added costs will present new burdens for California's budget crisis. And if the Court decides that the Eighth Amendment doesn't apply to prisoners after all, civil libertarians will protest that core values are being applied differently to one part of the population (prisoners) than another (the rest of us).
Regardless of what the justices decide, California is likely to lose one way or another. It costs $49,000 per inmate annually to house the prison population. Multiply that times the current population of 175,000 inmates and you have a number with a lot of zeros. And with the current budget $6 billion in the red between now and June 30th, that's the last headache that state officials need.