Supreme Court orders California to slash prison population by more than 30,000
In a 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court says severe overcrowding in the prisons violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. A minority opinion offers a sharp dissent.
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“Constitutional violations do not wait for recessions or booms. A violation is a violation regardless of whether the state has a surplus or is on the edge of bankruptcy,” says Jessica Levinson, Director of Political Reform for the Center for Governmental Studies. “It is also time for legislators and members of the electorate to focus not only on the fact that prisons are overcrowded, but why they are so overcrowded,” she says.Skip to next paragraph
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Conventional wisdom holds that “three-strikes, you’re out laws” are one of the main reasons for the overcrowding. Riding a “get tough on crime” wave, California in 1994 became the second state in the nation to significantly increase the prison sentences of convicted felons who previously had been convicted of a violent crime or serious felony, and to severely limit judge’s freedom to give punishment other than a prison sentence.
Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation, expressed disappointment that the Supreme Court “did not consider the numerous improvements made in health-care delivery to inmates in the past five years, as well as the significant reduction in the inmate population.”
“California’s inmate population has been reduced to levels not seen since 1995, and non-traditional beds have been eliminated by nearly 13,000,” he said. “We’ve come a long way in both population reduction measures and in the quality of care given to inmates.”
Joel Jacobsen, an assistant attorney general in the criminal appeals division for New Mexico, says the high court’s decision brings attention to the issue of overcrowding which produces reduced institutional control.
“When prisoners cannot get away from each other, power hierarchies inevitably develop, and prison gangs are the result. It should always be remembered that almost all of the prisoners will be released sooner or later. Forcing prisoners to adapt to a prison society that bears no relation to normal human society is only making it less likely that they will ever be able to function as normal, productive humans on the outside.”
Villanova criminal justice professor Kelly Welch says the decision is “actually a very practical decision,” that will help spotlight the consequences of voter choices to implement three strikes laws in the first place, which have not lived up to their promise of reducing crime.
“There is substantial criminological evidence that the incarceration binge of the last 30 years has actually not reduced crime. Thus, this has been an expense with no appreciable effect on crime. The decision of the Court to allow California to release a percentage of its inmates is probably a smart one, as it will reduce costs as well as treat the inmates that remain incarcerated more ethically by reducing overcrowding.”
She and others note, however that a primary concern is if there are no resources or transition supports for those inmates.
“There is a high likelihood that most of those released inmates can lead law-abiding lives as long as they get assistance in getting jobs, housing, and other essentials. If they are just dumped outside the door of the prison with nothing but the clothes they walked in there with, then they may find themselves with few legal options for survival.”
Says Eric Reslock, chief of external affairs for the California Prison Industry Authority, a rehabilitative work program, “This decision increases the liklihood that people are going to reoffend and go back to prison.”