Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Supreme Court Orders Release Of Thousands Of Prisoners

The United States Supreme Court announced a decision yesterday that will probably make a lot of people unhappy. In a 5-4 decision they upheld a ruling from a lower court that the state of California must release thousands of state prisoners (even though their sentences may not be completed). California's prison system has a capacity to house about 110,000 prisoners but has been holding thousands more than that (currently the prison population is about 142,000).

The court ruled that California prisons had "fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements" and the overcrowding had resulted in "needless suffering and death". The four most right-wing justices (Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Roberts) voted against the ruling, and Scalia warned that "terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order".

Scalia may be right, especially if the wrong prisoners are chosen to be released. But the Supreme Court really had no choice. They were just voting to uphold previous Supreme Court decisions that said any governmental authority that incarcerates people has a responsibility to house those people in a safe and minimally decent environment -- anything less is unconstitutional "cruel and unusual" punishment. With its huge overcrowding, California had violated that constitutional standard.

California is not the only state that is currently housing many thousands of prisoners. Texas currently has more prisoners than California (or any other state). But Texas has chosen a different path. They have spent enormous amounts of money to build many prisons to house the huge number of inmates, and they have done that at the expense of children, the poor, and the elderly. Texas funds it schools and social programs at levels significantly lower than almost all other states so they will have the money to house and feed the many thousands of prisoners.

Even in the current session of the legislature where they are having to make up for a $27 billion biennial budget shortfall, the prison system got funded while social programs and education received huge and drastic cuts in state funding. Frankly, both the Texas and California ways of handling their huge prison populations are unacceptable. California's overcrowding is unconstitutional and Texas' underfunding of necessary programs will just create future problems.

The simple fact of the matter is that the United States as a whole incarcerates far too many of its citizens -- more than any other country in the world. This is true whether talking about the total number of prisoners (over 2.2 million) or the number of prisons per 100,000 people (about 738 -- which is about 131 more prisoners per capita than second place Russia). Politicians in this country seem to think they can solve social problems by incarcerating people.

There are two major reasons for the huge American prison population. First, the United States has chosen to handle its crime problem (which is really no worse than that of many other developed nations) by giving harsh and lengthy prison sentences. Second, the United Staes has chosen to handle simple drug possession and use (which again, is no worse than in other countries) as a crime rather than as the medical problem that it really is.

I'm sure there are those that would like to build even more prisons and incarcerate more people, but that is not the solution. We have already shown the world that incarcerating large amounts of people for long periods of time won't solve the problems of either crime or drug use (or any other social problems). It is time to find real solutions. A good place to start would be to change laws to create more reasonable prison sentences and to legalize drug use and possession (and fight its use through education and treatment).

These kind of common sense solutions would not only drastically reduce prison overcrowding, but would free up large amounts of money to provide assistance to children, the poor, the elderly, and the jobless -- the Americans most hurt by the recession and government budget cuts.

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