In a 5-4 decision in Brown versus Plata the US Supreme Court upheld a lower court injunction ordering California to release about 46,000 convicted felons over the next two years to relieve overcrowding.
The decision split the court along its traditional liberal versus conservative lines with Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the swing vote between these blocks deciding in favor of the proposed sweeping release of prisoners. The conservative justices lead by Anton Scalia were scathing in their criticism of the majority decision saying the courts had overstepped their power and put themselves into a role of supervising the California prison system that was beyond their skill and authority and having failed at that they now propose to solve California’s overcrowding problem by letting the criminals out of jail.
That California prisons are a broken institution is not at issue. The prison system has been swamped by laws like three strikes, determinate sentencing and mandatory minimums aggressively incarcerating people in response to public outcries over violence, drugs and gangs.
But this is not just a California problem. The Pew Center on the States reports that more than one in every 100 adults is now confined in an American jail or prison. The Pew Public Safety Performance Project tells us what we know all to painfully that soaring costs of failed criminal justice systems are hitting the states hard when they can least afford it and worse those policies and systems are not solving the problem of crime, violence, drugs and gangs in any meaningful way.
But there is a worse demographic outcome even than these. We are wasting a generation of people who could have been productive members of society. One in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males that number is one in nine. Men statistically are 10 times more likely to be in jail, but the rate of women being jailed is rising much faster than for men with the rate for black women in their 30s now 1-in- 100. Overall, 1 in 53 people in their 20s is in jail, and 1 in 837 of those 55 and older is in jail or still in jail.
The other problem is politics. Demand for action against crime is an easy way for politicians to pander to the voters, but the soaring costs of keeping all these people in jail longer and turning them out more hardened criminals isn’t working. The prison guards union is very powerful in California politics and often has been an obstacle to changes in the prison system. The problems facing California prisons today are not new but that does not make them easier to solve.
The question is whether releasing 46,000 felons over the next two years to comply with the court order will do anything to solve the fundamental problem causing this high incarceration rate as a consequence of a failed set of social policies, family relationships, and the corrosive influence of drugs, gangs and guns in our civic life.
We know the answer to that question don’t we? We just don’t know how to solve the real problems.
- California Must Release 40,000 Prisoners (outsidethebeltway.com)
- Supreme Court orders California to free up to 46,000 prisoners (telegraph.co.uk)
- What are California’s best options for reducing state prison population? – 89.3 KPCC (news.google.com)
- Top Court Sets Stage for Felons to Go Free (online.wsj.com)
- California must cut prison population by 33,000 (sfgate.com)