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How Anthony Kennedy’s U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Transformed California’s Criminal Justice System

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File

An often overlooked part of retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s legacy is the mark he made on California’s prison system.

He authored the high court’s 2011 ruling that ordered California to release tens of thousands of inmates from its overcrowded prisons.

CapRadio's Ben Adler interviews Justice Anthony Kennedy

Justice Anthony Kennedy returned to his hometown of Sacramento in March 2013, just weeks before the SCOTUS heard oral arguments on California's ban on same-sex marriages known as Proposition 8. 

In an interview with Capital Public Radio two years later, Kennedy said Americans pay too much attention to what he calls the “guilt-or-innocence” process — and don't focus enough on the correctional process within prisons.

“Winston Churchill says a society is judged by how it treats the least deserving of its people — and we have to think about that with prisons,” Kennedy said. “Now, there’s some very dangerous people in prison that must be confined. But we have to, I think, look very hard at our penal methodologies. I don’t think it’s working.”

Kennedy’s ruling began a series of major changes to the state’s criminal justice system — starting with Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment program, which shifted responsibility for low-level offenders from the state to counties.

Voters later approved three ballot measures that made further changes. Proposition 36 loosened California’s “three strikes” sentencing law. Proposition 47 reduced some nonviolent drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. And Proposition 57 makes it easier for state inmates to be released from prison if they demonstrate good behavior.

Ben Adler

Capitol Bureau Chief

Capitol Bureau Chief Ben Adler first became a public radio listener in the car on his way to preschool – though not necessarily by choice. Now, he leads Capital Public Radio’s state Capitol coverage, which airs on NPR stations across California.  Read Full Bio 

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