Better ways to end prison overcrowding than just releasing inmates
California will soon need to release up to 33,000 prisoners. That's good, because most don't belong there. But don't cheer yet. Released prisoners – many with mental illnesses and no resources – will strain stressed cities and services. It's time to pursue cheaper, humane alternatives to prison.
New Haven, Conn.
Last month, for the first time the United States Supreme Court ordered a state government to tackle America’s shameful prison overcrowding. Unless it builds new prisons – highly unlikely given its fiscal straits – California may be forced to release up to 33,000 prisoners by 2013.Skip to next paragraph
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This is good news. These people do not belong in prison. They are casualties of the war on drugs and measures like the state’s 1994 “three strikes” initiative, which have filled the state’s prisons with thousands of non-violent offenders at staggering financial and human cost. Many are struggling with mental illness.
California reflects the national pattern. The US contains 5 percent of the world’s population, yet houses a quarter of its prison inmates – well over 2 million people. Among all US states, California has the 17th highest incarceration rate with 616 per 100,000 adults in prison. This is higher than any other country in the world and more than five times the rate in communist China.
But before we start celebrating the high court’s prison decision in Brown v. Plata, we should ask: What kind of people will be released, and where will they go?
The great majority will be semi-functional older people, many of whom have lived in institutions for decades. Most will lack families who can care for them or community support systems. In this economy, they will probably be devoid of marketable skills. Most will not qualify for Social Security retirement or disability benefits. They will probably have no savings. And they will descend on California’s cities, many of which also face severe fiscal problems. Many of these ex-prisoners will probably be desperate.
Look what happened to mental hospitals
The instructive historical parallel is the de-institutionalization of America’s mental hospitals during the fiscal crises of the 1970s and 80s, following the development of psychotropic medications for treating symptoms of chronic mental illness. Thousands of people with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses who had been institutionalized for decades were released by the courts. They no longer met the standard for forcible incarceration: They were neither dangerous nor in need of custodial treatment.
But then, as now, courts were pushing against the open doors of fiscally strapped state legislatures. Politicians were happy to shut down wings of hospitals, and in some cases entire facilities.
What they did not do was pass the savings on to the fiscally strapped cities to cope with the new populations that descended on them. The result was that large numbers of people with mental illnesses and or who were socially fragile were discharged from hospitals but lacked appropriate psychiatric and social work follow-up. Many stopped taking their medications. Struggling with mental illness, living in poverty, frequently homeless, and without family support, they often engaged in socially unacceptable behavior.