Cruel and Unusual Crowding
Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld a Ninth Circuit panel which mandated that California reduce the state prison population by about 30,000 over the next two years. The Ninth Circuit made the ruling after finding that the physical and mental healthcare provided by the state in the prisons was so deficient that it violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Justice Kennedy joined the liberal wing of the court to write the majority opinion, citing an overwhelming list of horrendous facts: 143,000 prisoners being held in facilities designed for 80,000; 54 prisoners sharing a single toilet; one prisoner a week dying unnecessarily; prisoners at risk for suicide held for 24 hours in phone booth-sized cages; one such prisoner “standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic” because prison officials had “no place to put him”. The situation is clearly dire and unjust. The conservatives don’t think so, however. Justice Alito criticized the decision as judicial overreach that would result in the release of “three Army brigades” of violent prisoners. Living up to his reputation, Justice Scalia called it “the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history” which will lead to “inevitable murders, robberies and rapes”.
The ruling is undoubtedly unusual in its reach but the failure of California state officials to deal with the problem left the courts with no other option. The California Legislature has failed to reform the sentencing laws that created the problem in the first place or raises the taxes necessary to pay for the “tough on crime” policies. These have contributed to the growth of the prison population from 24,000 in 1980 to what it is today, compared to the population increase from 24mil to 38mil. As is often the case, the Legislature has been engaged in policy-making without regard to cost, pumping their public safety cred without facing the costs. The people of California are to blame as well: 72% of voters approved Prop. 184, which instituted the “three strikes” policy for repeat felony offenders. The systemic cure for this problem is sentencing reform, including the repeal of Prop. 184 (although that will be difficult because it can only be repealed by a vote of the people).
Nonetheless, the court order does not necessarily require the release of 30,000 prisoners onto the streets of California, as Scalia and Alito’s fear-mongering would have it. Governor Brown already has a plan to shift less violent prisoners to county jails, which are able to house prisoners more cheaply. Brown’s plan would require a tax increase in order to provide the counties with proper funding to handle the prisoners. Republicans are opposed to it, as expected, but they don’t seem to have any plan at all so Brown’s plan will have to do.
Shifting the focus of the correctional system from incarceration to rehabilitation could also reduce recidivism rates, and thus overcrowding, by giving prisoners the tools necessary to reintegrate and become contributing members of society once they have done their time. California has a recidivism rate of 70%, the highest in the country. AG Kamala Harris implemented these types of reforms during her time as DA of San Francisco and touted them during her campaign, including the Back on Track program which allowed first-time offenders to plead guilty and receive job training under court supervision instead of doing time. Recidivism for offenders who participated in the program was below 10% compared to 54% for comparable offenders generally in California.
Ultimately, California needs to do two things: only put people in prison need to be in prison, and only for the minimum amount of time necessary, and enable them to stay out of prison once they are released. Obviously, much easier said than done.
I’d be remiss if I wrote this much about the prison problem in California without mentioning the prison guards’ union. The short story is that they are one of the most powerful unions in the state with support from both sides of the aisle that results in generous pensions and pay. They have an incentive to maintain the system as it is because it ensures that they’ll have jobs and that they’ll get overtime work which they can pad their salaries with. While I’m sure they’ll be involved in the state’s response to this ruling, I’m not sure how.