Last year, the Supreme Court made waves when it ordered California to release tens of thousands of inmates from its overcrowded prisons on the grounds that the cash-strapped state was keeping them locked up under inhumane conditions. The Supreme Court order has forced California to repurpose county jails—which are intended for short stays, often by people awaiting trial—into makeshift prisons for those with long-term sentences. Now many of these jails are facing severe overcrowding.
The New York Times reports:
Ordered by the United States Supreme Court to reduce severe overcrowding in its prisons, California began redirecting low-level offenders to local jails last October in a shift called realignment. Its prison population, the nation’s largest, has since fallen by more than 16 percent to 120,000 from 144,000; it must be reduced to 110,000 by next June.
Counties with already tight budgets are scrambling to house the influx of newcomers in facilities that were never designed to accommodate inmates serving long sentences, like a man who began serving 15 years for fraud recently in the Fresno jail.
Fresno County — a sprawling agricultural area surrounding the city, which is also facing financial problems and became a punch line for Conan O’Brien recently — is adding 864 beds to its chronically overcrowded jail. Under a longstanding federal consent decree that requires the Sheriff’s Department to release inmates when the jail reaches capacity, 40 to 60 people are let go early every day.
Nor do these jails offer the activities that often fill the lives of those in conventional prisons:
Built for stays shorter than one year, the jail does not offer the kind of activities, work programs and amenities found in most prisons. “You’re stuck in a little cell,” Mr. Diaz said, while prisons with outdoor space provide plenty of “yard time.”
Once again, California’s dysfunctional governance has utterly failed the state’s residents. California can’t afford to enforce its own laws: an absurd and even insane position for a state to be in. California needs laxer laws that lock fewer people up, or it needs a bigger prison budget but there are no sane grounds on which the status quo can be defended. Forced by the US Supreme Court to do something, the state has acted with its characteristic fecklessness and passed the buck: handing the problem off to local governments, which, we should add, are facing serious fiscal problems of their own and are ill-equipped to deal with new prisoners.
California is in a hole but can’t seem to stop its compulsive digging. Schools, universities, prisons, pensions, cities and towns: the state has lost the ability to manage even the most basic elements of communal living. But foie gras is now illegal there, grandiose plans for white elephant fast trains built with borrowed money waft through the air, and the state continues to boost the self esteem of affluent and cause-oriented gentry liberals by scattering scarce resources to the four winds, hunting unicorns when the cupboard is bare.
Someday, perhaps, California will be governed by people who care about governing: that is to say, educating the kids, balancing the books, enforcing the law. Until then, it offers the rest of us a spectacle and a warning. It is some spectacle and some warning. California remains awesome, even in decline.