Out of Control Policy Blog

Federal Judges Order Release of 43,000 California Prisoners Due to Overcrowding

Just when you thought things couldn't get much worse for the California government, a three-judge federal court has ruled that conditions in the state's prisons are so deplorable that the state must come up with a plan to release over 40,000 prisoners to relieve overcrowding.  As reported by the L.A. Times,

California’s prisons are so overcrowded that the state is violating inmates’ constitutional rights, three federal judges ruled today in a decision imposing a cap on the prison population that will force the state to release nearly 43,000 prisoners over the next two years.

The 185-page opinion also accused the state of fostering “criminogenic” conditions, compelling former prisoners to commit more crimes and feed a cycle of recidivism.

[. . . ]

The ruling by three federal judges stems from challenges by two inmates alleging that the state’s network of 33 prisons is so overcrowded that they are denied adequate health care and treatment of mental illnesses.

California’s prisons, designed to hold 84,000 inmates, house 158,000, much of the overflow contained in converted sports facilities arrayed with triple-tier bunks.  That exposes prisoners to infectious diseases, the lawsuits alleged, constituting cruel and unusual punishment in a system suffering a shortage of doctors, nurses and technicians.

One reason there is so much overcrowding in the state's prisons is that there are so many laws, many of which are unnecessary or even immoral.  Take, for example, the state's drug laws.  Nearly one in five state prisoners were incarcerated for drug-related offenses.  In a free society, the government has no right to tell you what you can--or cannot--put into your own body, regardless of how inadvisable it may be to consume a particular substance.  Even setting aside the moral question of one's ownership of his or her own body, from a purely practical standpoint, the drug war has been a complete and utter failure.  In deciding which prisoners to release, the state should start with non-violent drug offenders (those who committed violent crimes in connection with drug offenses should, of course, remain locked up) and others convicted of victimless crimes.  Better yet, Gov. Schwarzenegger should pardon all those convicted of non-violent victimless crimes.

There is also the issue of costs.  It costs California approximately $49,000 a year to house an inmate, nearly 70% higher than the national average of $29,000 per prisoner (see p. 12).  This is due, in large part, to the strength of the prison guards' union, which has proven that it is still every bit as formidable as when Gov. Gray Davis was in office.  Needless to say, California needs to reduce its corrections costs.  One way to do this while maintaining (or, likely, improving) service levels would be through contracting prison operations to private-sector companies, as has been done in numerous places across the nation.  The union has effectively stonewalled such attempts to the past, and look how well things have gone under their management.  Can we now admit we need to try something else and let the private sector give it a shot?

Other Resources:

» Corporate Corrections?  Frequently Asked Questions About Prison Privatization

» Reason's Prisons and Corrections Research and Commentary

Adam Summers is Senior Policy Analyst


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