NBC's Nightly News on Monday and the Today show on Tuesday ignored a controversial, ideologically divided Supreme Court ruling that ordered California to release at least 38,000 prisoners. ABC, over two days, allowed a scant 11 seconds. Only CBS provided a full report.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia warned that "terrible things are sure to happen" if the action is implemented as a result of overcrowding. On the CBS Evening News, Jan Crawford provided the sole full report, observing the controversial nature of the 5-4 split.
She described, "Now, this case produced an extraordinarily heated debate between the conservatives and liberal justices." Crawford highlighted a separate dissent by Sam Alito. He worried that the majority was "gambling with the safety of the people of California." She repeated Alito's foreboding statement: "I fear that today's decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims."
ABC ignored the story on World News. On Good Morning America, guest news anchor Bianna Golodryga dispensed with the subject in 11 seconds: "Well, the Supreme Court has ordered California to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates because of overcrowding. Justices ruled conditions inside the state's prisons amount to cruel and unusual punishment. "
Given such little coverage, it's unsurprising that the cause of the overcrowding also was ignored. An editorial in the Orange County Register on Tuesday pointed out that California spends $47,000 per inmate:
Partly, the problem stems from meeting pay and benefit demands of the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Consequently, the cost of keeping prisoners behind bars has soared. California spends $47,000 a year per inmate, compared with $18,000 per inmate in Texas, a direct result of paying California prison guards $71,000 a year, before overtime, compared with $31,000 for Texas guards. A prisoner in California is more costly to taxpayers than a student at California's public universities.
Partly, California's prison crunch results from thousands imprisoned for drug-related offenses, although Proposition 36 in 2000 mitigated that burden somewhat by providing alternative community treatment and supervision for first- and second-time defendants convicted of nonviolent drug possession.
Another contributing factor is the disproportionately large prison population of illegal immigrants, partly the result of ineffectual border control and the lure of the welfare state, where the "free" benefits of health care, education, welfare, food and housing assistance are available for the asking.
Considering the severity of the conservative justices' warnings, one would think that the networks would have some interest.
A transcript of the May 23 Evening News segment can be found below:
RUSS MITCHELL: A U.S. Supreme Court decision today could unlock prison doors for tens of thousands of criminals in California. The Supreme Court ruled that crowded conditions like these bunk beds and poor medical care violate inmates' rights. Chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford joins us now from Washington with more. Jan, good evening.
JAN CRAWFORD: Good evening, Russ. I mean, this case deeply divided the justice along ideological lines. It was a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy who joined the court's four liberals in saying the drastic remedy was necessary because the overcrowding was causing needless suffering and death. Kennedy wrote "a prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance including adequate medical care has no place in civilized society." Now, this case produced an extraordinarily heated debate between the conservatives and liberal justices. In dissent Justice Samuel Alito said the court was, quote, "gambling with the safety of the people of California." He added, "I fear that today's decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims." Now justice Alito referenced a smaller release in Philadelphia back in the 1990s that resulted in thousands of re-arrests and almost 10,000 new crimes. But Justice Kennedy downplayed that threat to the public, he said that was overblown. He suggested that the state of California could take up to five years to cut the prison population and could also decide, you know, which inmates they were going to let go. But Kennedy acknowledged that even doing those things still would mean an unprecedented release of prisoners. Russ?
MITCHELL: You mentioned five years, Jan. Give me a timetable. How soon could these prisoners actually be on the street?
CRAWFORD: The court said if they can go back to the lower court and say, "look, we need five years." So this does not mean prisoners will be out on the street tomorrow. They may have some extra time to work something out.