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.


We are reaping now what we’ve sown in punitive policies imposed as part of the “war on drugs.” We’re more likely to use rules of baseball (California’s three-strike policy, for example) than correctional expertise in determining our sentencing rules. Backtracking years later on the 100-to-1 ratio between federal crack and powder-cocaine sentences is regarded as a victory instead of a condemnation of the wrongheaded criminal justice policies that arbitrarily impose long and indefensible sentences burdening the lives of prisoners, the communities they come from, and our state and federal coffers.

The fact that overcrowding undermines the provision of adequate health care to prisoners and exacerbates negative mental health outcomes among the incarcerated has been well-known for decades. It’s also well-established that prison overcrowding endangers corrections officers and other personnel who work in prisons. In an extraordinary move, the organization representing the 35,000 correctional officers in the California system filed a brief on the side of the Plata plaintiffs, arguing that overcrowded conditions make it impossible for corrections officers to “facilitate the provision of constitutionally adequate care” to prisoners in the system. 

Yet states throughout the country have plowed forward, imposing draconian sentencing regimes without ensuring adequate funding or facilities to meet the needs created by policies that favor warehousing convicts over providing drug-treatment, educational and vocational-training programs — along with services such as family support, job creation, community policing and mental health — that are well-documented and effective means of reducing crime and recidivism.

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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