Keeping America's Prisons Overcrowded

In a case before the Supreme Court, California Gov. Schwarzenegger is arguing that judges have no right to tell states to reduce their prison populations.

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California and Texas lead all of the states in the size of their prison populations. Texas' prison population doubled in just a five-year period in the mid-1990s. The proliferation of private, for-profit prisons is not an answer but instead creates even more grotesque incentives to continue our mass-incarceration policies.

States' rights come with responsibilities. The condition of our prison system is a reflection of irresponsible state and federal policies that have often been politically expedient, but fiscally and morally unsound. The orders of the federal court requiring reductions in the California system were based on the expert conclusions of correctional professionals and the state's failure to muster the political will to fulfill its obligation.

The federal court did not order the "release" of 46,000 prisoners, as is frequently reported, but ordered that the state achieve levels of reduction by a variety of means, including early release, prison transfers and new prison construction, that would bring the population to within 137.5 percent of the prison's designed capacity. Still overcrowded, but less so. And yet even this measure may be regarded by the Supreme Court as an impermissible intrusion into what California regards as its right to manage its affairs.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor of law at the University of Maryland and a regular contributor to The Root.

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