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U.S. Supremes to California: You’re Ungovernable

CALIFORNIA - In ordering the release of tens of thousands of California prisoners, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court sent an unmistakable message to this state and its citizens: you are unable to govern yourselves.

At a couple of points in the decision, the opinion, by Anthony Kennedy, a Californian, departs from the subject of prisons to comment on the bleak political and fiscal reality of the state.

The prisons, he writes, are the product of a state where governance is broken: "In addition to overcrowding the failure of California's prisons to provide adequate medical and mental health care may be ascribed to chronic and worsening budget shortfalls, a lack of political will in favor of reform, inadequate facilities, and systemic administrative failures."

In making the argument for the order, Kennedy concludes that California and its legislature are simply incapable of taking the necessary action to make conditions in state prisons constitutional.

"The Court cannot ignore the political and fiscal reality behind this case," he wrote. "California's Legislature has not been willing or able to allocate the resources necessary to meet this crisis absent a reduction in overcrowding. There is no reason to believe it will begin to do so now, when the State of California is facing an unprecedented budgetary shortfall."

That is a damning verdict from the nation's highest court.

(Joe Mathews is a journalist and Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. This column was posted first at

Vol 9 Issue 42
Pub: May 27, 2011