The Prison Litigation at the Supreme Court

If you’ve listened to the news on the radio today, you may have heard something about the California prison litigation at the Supreme Court.  On one hand, it boils down to a relatively arcane bit of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which governs, well, how prison litigation happens in federal court.  The state is arguing, amongst many things,  that the federal court erred in not providing enough discretion on how to reduce prison population.

It’s not that California’s been ordered to provide Cadillac care; today, one inmate dies every eight days due to shoddy medical care. The suicide rate in California prisons is twice the national average.

Despite efforts by the state to improve the situation over two decades, it’s still bad.

Last year, three federal judges ordered California to reduce the prison population. They decided that the only cure for the situation was to reduce overcrowding in California prisons; California prisons are packed to nearly double capacity.

They ordered California to release 46,000 inmates, about a third of the total, in the next two years. California appealed that order, and the U.S. Supreme Court hears that appeal today.

California says that the three federal judges overstepped their authority, violating a federal statute called the Prison Litigation Reform Act. That act says that the only way federal judges can order a prison reduction by a state is if the reduction is the only way to solve an ongoing violation; the ongoing violation in this case is the lack of medical and mental health care. It has to be the only solution to the problem. (SoCal Public Radio)

Of course, it isn’t like the state has really done anything at all to reduce overcrowding in the last two years. Basically, we’ve been sitting back and focusing on fighting the litigation rather than the actual crux of the problem.  I’m not sure that even in the best of circumstances it is possible to reduce the population in the two year window, but we didn’t really try.  The Bee ties this in with the recent victory of Kamala Harris in the AG race.  (Notes: I worked on her campaign, and the Bee endorsed her opponent.)

She thinks there is a better way to hold nonviolent criminals accountable. She points to Back on Track, a San Francisco program that diverts nonviolent criminals, mostly drug dealers, to job training, community service, drug treatment and school, instead of prison or jail. She says the program saves San Francisco $1 million in jail costs for every 100 offenders who go through it, and twice that much in court costs, while reducing recidivism.

It is noteworthy that Harris will claim victory today at the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco, the rehabilitation facility which, as its website boasts, “has been teaching drug abusers, ex-convicts and others who have hit bottom to turn their lives around since 1971.”

As attorney general, Harris will have no power to reduce sentences. She won’t be able to alter how local prosecutors charge crimes. Nor will she be able to refuse to defend the state when federal judges challenge its overcrowded prison system.

But she can use the bully pulpit to push innovative approaches to the broken justice system. If it were smarter on crime, perhaps California wouldn’t need a federal court order to cut prison population.(SacBee)

For many years, we’ve been beating ourselves up trying to get “Tougher” on Crime, as if there was some sort of choice on “Tough” vs. “Soft.”  But, that’s one of the things that attracted my interest when Kamala was running for DA back in 2003, that she saw this as the false dichotomy that it is.  Getting tough by simply applying the practices that got us into this mess will not solve anything, and it certainly won’t make us safer.  The way we become a safer, and more productive, state is to work to reintegrate those that have made the bad decisions that land them in our prison system, and work to get them back in a position to be productive citizens.  

Obviously this doesn’t work well for our violent criminals, but those are a minority in our prisons.  We are locking up hundreds of non-violent offenders, and teaching them to be better criminals, and probably making them more violent at the same time.  After all, prisons, especially overcrowded ones, are not really the best place to travel up Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs.

Programs like Back on Track work because they recognize that not all criminals are created equal.  We need to look for ways to not only punish, but also to do more for rehabilitation than Arnold’s method of slapping the word on the end of the name of the department.  We shouldn’t be playing some sort of ridiculous multiple choice question, where we can have better public safety, lower expenditures, or lower prison populations.  We can, and should, do all of the above.

If Kansas can get it, certainly California, the home of innovation, can do it as well.

3 thoughts on “The Prison Litigation at the Supreme Court”

  1. in a Preliminary Hearing dept before I came out here to the Juvenile Court.  I was nearly ready to quit my job because I was sick of standing next to people being sent to prison for non-violent crimes that should have been handled as misdemeanors.  In some future time people will look back on us as we look back on those who countenanced indentured servitude or witchcraft trials.  The proliferation of stupid laws passed by initiative with high sounding names like Crime Victims Bill Of Rights, and containing little of use to “crime victims’ but which serve as media platforms for right-wing politicians is responsible for much of the horrendous damage our prison culture has spawned.

  2. If she can bring the changes she’s made in SF to the State, she will make a lasting change to California.

    That combined with decriminalization of marijuana, will put a stop to the prison industrial complex.

  3. A lot of people belive one of the greatest threats to the American worker is foreign competition who will work for less.  While it’s true there’s much of that going on, the real problem is that much of America’s manufacturing sector now uses prison labor ($1.25 for states and $2.50 per hour for federal prisoners).

    I believe capitalism is in it’s terminal stages and the prison-industrial-complex which depends greatly on non-violent drug offenders is just one example of a morally bankrupt policy.

    Investors of a certain class depend on the patchwork of laws and prejudices we call our justice system in order to fill our prisons with cheap employees.

    It’s nice to know Kamala Harris has the courage to speak out about this.  However, our current President said a lot of important stuff as a candidate and then did a 180 once in office.

    Only time will tell where Harris stands.  If she has a future in the Democratic Party I’d love to hear her speak out about the use of PROPAGANDA in drug policy and especially cannabis.

    If a person without a law degree can easily come to the conclusion that propaganda is both a feature and required ingredient of our justice system, then why is it that Democrats can still play dumb on prohibition and be considered progressive?

    Too me, a progressive is someone willing to advocate for freedom and truth.  The fact Kamala Harris or any other Democrat refused to support Prop. 19 is problematic to me.

Comments are closed.