When I heard the news about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision May 24 to order California to reduce its prison population by 30,000 inmates, I contacted a longtime friend, Susan Bausch, for her take on the decision. Susan works in the criminal court system, in the neutral role of staff attorney for criminal judges. I am pleased to share her comments with you. -Ken Kimsey.
Despite the fact that the crime rate has been dropping in the United States for a number of years, this country’s prison population has continued to swell. In a move that entirely surprised me, given the Court’s current make-up, the United States Supreme Court ordered California to release at least 30,000 of its inmates due to overcrowding. It held that conditions in many of California prisons violated the inmates’ right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, it looked at whether the prisoners’ needs for medical and mental health care were being met; it determined that the very limited services being provided fell below the standard of decency required by the Eighth Amendment.
The Court did what no elected politician would ever dare to do: it is letting some of the “bad guys” out. This opens up the possibility for California and all other states to reconsider why it put these people in prison in the first place and to explore whether better, cheaper, more socially productive means of controlling crime exists.
I work in the criminal court system, in the neutral role of staff attorney for criminal judges. Over the years, I have watched the criminals come and go, in and out of the system, and back in again. Neither the system nor the individuals caught up in it change or improve. So many of the people who stand before the bench awaiting the pronouncement of sentence are drug addicts, alcoholics, mentally ill, uneducated, unskilled, unemployable and often a combination of several of these things. What many of them are not is dangerous. According to Wikipedia, only about half of all persons in state prisons are there for violent crimes. Yet we lock the nonviolent ones up too, often for years at a time, costing us an estimated $50,000 of already scarce public resources for each inmate each year. And, when these prisoners emerge from the system, they are not more equipped to live a lawful, useful life, but less so, and are thus highly likely to commit more crimes.
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Surely, even if our goal is solely to prevent more crime, rather than the more humanitarian one of helping disadvantaged persons, there must be alternatives to prison, alternatives that would cost less and do more. This sentiment is catching on, even among conservative Republicans who just a few years earlier would have been unwilling to look “soft on crime.” Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has said, with regard to prison alternatives, “It is new thinking, it’s different thinking, it’s not being soft versus being hard.” Florida’s new tea-party-leaning Republican Governor Rick Scott has proposed reforms that would provide services and education to inmates to reduce recidivism. There is a conservative group called “Right on Crime” espousing new ideas and alternatives. Even in “lock ‘em up” Texas, the legislature has decided against building new prisons because of the cost and has instead been looking for new solutions. (www.wbur.org/2011/03/30/tough-on-crime).
While it may be that these conservatives are more focused budget issues than helping the disadvantaged, those committed to criminal justice reform because their hearts are in it should not scoff at these new proposals coming from those who have traditionally been their adversaries. The time seems ripe for a redirection of resources into mental health facilities, drug treatment centers, job training programs and community control sentences that would allow offenders to stay out of prison while being closely supervised and receiving critical services to help them to avoid committing further crimes.
The transition to a non-incarcerative system will be fought by many vested interests. Building and staffing prisons is big business, especially in many rural counties across the South. The Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a national sentencing reform advocacy group based in Washington, DC, has said that in California, the politically powerful prison guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, has opposed policies that could result in any decline in the prisoner population, thus ensuring steady employment for its members. [Left and Right Join in Support of Fairer Sentences for ALL Crack Offenders Similar opposition will be raised elsewhere by people whose jobs are at stake and by people who are genuinely afraid that letting the “bad guys” out will increase violence in their neighborhoods.
Change is always hard. But we can’t possibly continue down the same path we are on, with an ever-higher and higher percentage of our population behind bars. It costs far too much, in far more than mere financial terms.