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Where does California put 33,000 released inmates?

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
Men sleep in bunks stacked three high in a gym at the California Institution in Chino, Exhibit A in the overcrowding crisis.
Men sleep in bunks stacked three high in a gym at the California Institution in Chino, Exhibit A in the overcrowding crisis.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Court ruling means California must cut huge prison population by 25%
  • Prisons are bursting at seams, he says, but what about the rights of law-abiding citizens?
  • Prison construction hasn't kept pace with the number of convictions, Navarrette writes
  • He suggests older inmates and nonviolent felons be paroled, non-citizens deported

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.

San Diego (CNN) -- Hasn't California suffered enough?

Apparently not, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the name of reducing prison overcrowding and preserving a "standard of decency," the high court this week handed down a decision that could set the stage for something indecent: the release of tens of thousands of prisoners back into society.

Just when Californians thought they had seen it all and endured it all. The Golden State has withstood drought, mudslides, fires and earthquakes. It has a massive budget deficit, about $9.6 billion, that only looks manageable by comparison with what it was just a few months ago, $25.4 billion, before the state tallied up tax revenue from high-income Californians. The state has an unemployment rate that is higher than the national average at 11.7 percent, and it has one of the highest rates of mortgage foreclosures per capita in the country.

What's next? How about "Get Out of Jail Free" cards for 33,000 inmates in the state prison system? It could happen.

In a 5-4 decision this week, the Supreme Court upheld a 2009 ruling by a lower court that ordered California officials to shrink the prison population by about 25 percent. The state could decide how to meet that goal, the lower court said, but the goal had to be met one way or another. No stalling. No excuses.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

After the high court seconded that motion, state officials tried to offer assurances that they wouldn't arbitrarily grant early release to such a large number of inmates. Instead, they promised to submit a plan to the federal courts in two weeks, spelling out other remedies for prison overcrowding. So far, all Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers have come up with is the Band-Aid of housing nonviolent felons with short sentences in county jails, not that there is much vacancy there, either.

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In the Supreme Court decision, the all-important swing vote belonged to Justice Anthony Kennedy. A former California resident himself, Kennedy wrote that cramming 143,435 prisoners into facilities that are operating at 200 percent capacity constituted "serious constitutional violations" resulting in "injury and harm." But, in a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito warned that any mass prisoner release would be tantamount to "gambling with the safety of the people of California."

As a native Californian intent on keeping my family safe, I'm with Alito. With all this talk about the rights of prisoners who broke the law, where's the concern for the rights of citizens who obey the law -- and then have pay among the highest tax rates in the nation to house, feed and provide health care to those who don't?

And speaking of health care, the prison population is experiencing the same thing that the rest of society is going through: aging. And naturally, as prisoners get older, their health care costs go up.

Perhaps the only silver lining to the release order is that it provides state officials the chance to do what some prison reform advocates have long argued for: releasing older people -- say, 65 and over -- whose days of committing crime are probably behind them. Another option is for the state to parole nonviolent drug offenders and stop using prisons as poor substitutes for treatment facilities. It could also take inmates who are illegal immigrants and deport them to their home countries.

Yet, at the same time, it's not right to blame the courts for pointing out the obvious: California prisons are bursting at the seams. The state's 33 correctional facilities operate at 200 percent capacity, with three prisoners crammed into 6-foot-by-9-foot cells that were intended to hold just one.

Part of the reason for the overcrowding is that the state prison population has increased 75 percent in the past 20 years. And part of it is because prison construction hasn't kept pace with that reality.

The "people of California" who Alito talks about have been kicking this can down the road for decades.

In fact, I remember, when I was a senior in high school, my government teacher handed out a selection of topics for the class to debate. One of the items was "prison reform." That was nearly 30 years ago.

It's not just prison reform. The state is being devoured by the unsustainable burden of funding public employee pensions, and most of its residents have let to face that reality as well. The state motto might as well be: "Why confront today a crisis you can put off until tomorrow?"

Californians haven't wanted to build prisons not only because we didn't want to pay for it but also -- and just as important -- because we didn't want brick and mortar structures full of prisoners in our backyard.

Now, we might get the prisoners living next door, but without the brick and mortar buildings.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.