Four ways to relieve overcrowded prisons
Finally, America is beginning to tackle overcrowded prisons, prompted by financially strapped states that can no longer afford them. The road to prison reform, and less crowding, includes revamping 'three strikes' laws, as in California, and limiting pre-trial detention.
Necessity can spur novelty. Even political novelty. As the need for fiscal austerity grows, an unlikely alliance has emerged between policymakers and public advocates who have long sought criminal justice reform. These policymakers are realizing what advocates have reiterated for years: The nation’s addiction to incarceration as a curb on crime must end. The evidence is staggering.Skip to next paragraph
In California, 54 prisoners may share a single toilet and 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium supervised by two or three officers. Suicidal inmates may be held for protracted periods in cages without toilets and the wait times for mental health care sometimes reach 12 months.
Citing these conditions and more, the Supreme Court ruled in May that California prisoners were deprived adequate access to medical and mental health care in violation of the Eighth Amendment and its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It ordered the early release of tens of thousands of inmates.
Prison overcrowding is ubiquitous and shows few signs of abating: Between 1970 and 2005, the nation’s inmate population grew by 700 percent. Besides impeding access to health care, overcrowding also creates unsafe and unsanitary conditions, diverts prison resources away from education and social development, and forces low- and high-risk offenders to mingle, increasing the likelihood of recidivism.
Expect additional lawsuits. That’s why a consortium of states, including Illinois, Texas, and my home state of Virginia, submitted an amicus curiae or friend-of-the-court brief in support of the state of California.
America's overreliance on incarceration has also impeded the rights of criminal defendants. The Sixth Amendment guarantees legal representation to individuals charged with a crime. Yet, because of the crushing volume of cases, indigent defense programs often suffer from inadequate staffing, funding, and supervision.
In Kentucky, a public defender may represent more than 450 clients in a single year. In Miami, Florida, the annual case load is nearly 500 felonies and 2,225 misdemeanors. The consequences include wrongful incarceration, wrongful convictions, and guilty pleas when meritorious defenses are otherwise available.
Civil rights groups in Michigan and New York have already brought lawsuits seeking an overhaul of their states’ indigent defense systems. These lawsuits might be a harbinger for the future: States unfaithful to the promise of the Sixth Amendment may be forced to increase funding and restructure legislative priorities.
Protecting prisoners and criminal defendants is not just about fidelity to the Bill of Rights. It is about recognizing that they are acutely vulnerable because they do not have access to coalitions and political networks capable of effecting change. Affording them protection is consistent with the enduring constitutional principle that political democracy alone cannot adequately protect the rights of certain groups of people.