California can relieve packed prisons without eroding safety

The Supreme Court ruled that overcrowded prisons in California amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Reducing the prison population does not have to pit human dignity against public safety.

The wheels of justice turn slowly for inmates in California’s overstuffed prison system, the largest in the United States. But thanks to yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, those wheels must now accelerate.

The high court determined that the state’s chronic inmate overcrowding violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. A 5-to-4 majority upheld a lower court’s 2009 order that California must reduce its prison population in order to improve conditions.

The case stems from class action suits by mentally and physically ill inmates that stretch over 21 years. The justices’ split ruling echoes old arguments pitting humane treatment against public safety – but the two are not incompatible.

Speaking for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in a civilized society.”

Built to handle 80,000 inmates, California’s prisons house nearly twice that amount – more than 140,000. Some prisoners are packed into gymnasiums in triple bunks, while some of the mentally ill are kept in phone-booth-sized cages.

The lower court found that a California prisoner needlessly dies every six or seven days “due to constitutional deficiencies.” Suicide rates are nearly 80 percent higher than the national average for prison populations.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito penned stinging dissents. “The majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California,” wrote Justice Alito, who feared that the order to reduce the number of inmates “will lead to a grim roster of victims.”

The court left it up to the state to figure out how to downsize, and California has many options short of opening prison doors like floodgates on a swollen Mississippi River.

It can transfer nonviolent offenders to county jails – as a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown would do, if only the legislature would find a way to pay for it. It can also expand prisons and send some of its prisoners to out-of-state facilities, which it is also doing.

But funding for more bricks-and-mortar prisons can be subject to delays, and building projects don’t get at the root of overcrowding. California has the second highest recidivism rate in the country, returning nearly 60 percent of its released population back to prison. Technical violations of parole – not new crimes committed – have a lot to do with this revolving door.

In recent years, California and a few other states have passed laws to help reduce recidivism, and the prison population has begun to decline. It would do well to also reexamine its automatic “three strikes” sentencing laws, which helped build the prison population in the first place.

Violent offenders need to be behind bars, but it should also be remembered that 95 percent of inmates in America will eventually be released back into the community. California can do a much better job of managing the release by preparing inmates for a productive life “on the outside,” while also taking steps to slow the inflow.

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