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The recent decision by the three judge panel in the Coleman/​Plata case should be applauded as a short but positive step forward in forcing some degree of sanity upon the broken California prison system. Unfortunately, the fact that a panel of Federal judges was forced to step in and force the state to make long overdue policy decisions is simply another poignant reminder of our political systems dysfunctionality. California’s prison crisis is a political construct that an evil scheming mad scientist could not have better devised. Spurred on by the lets exploit public crime fear machinations of ambitious politicians and sensation driven media, California’s prison system grew from approximately 20,000 inmates in 1980 to 167,000 inmates today. This record prison expansion produced a vast and well funded network of powerful interest groups who vigorously resist any changes to the status quo. These interest groups are typically led and organized by behind the scenes Sacramento lobbyists who barter alliances, money, and favors for political influence. Since 1990, there have been no less than 10 nonpartisan public policy reports, including those of Republication governors Deukmejian, Wilson, and Schwarzenegger, urging immediate changes in California’s criminal justice practices in order to avoid catastrophe. What was the response to these warnings — to do nothing. Now with the prison system on the verge of collapse from overcrowding, and elected officials not able to construct a politically comfortable solution, the Federal courts stepped in and ordered state officials to act in the public interest by instituting modest reforms. Rather than react with a sense of gratitude that that courts had relieved them of this grown-up responsibility — how did Gov Schwarznegger and Attorney General (and possibly future gov) Jerry Brown respond? By denouncing the judges actions and appealing the order to the US Supreme Court. 

Thus, absent this Federal Court intervention, the California corrections system would continue to spiral out of control, with little hope of an effective solution from our current political leadership. 

For an intelligent and responsible analysis of the current California prison crisis and its solutions, please read the excellent 2007 report from California’s non partisan Little Hoover Commission entitled Solving California’s Corrections Crisis: Time is Running Out.