Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Desperate Times (Redux)

Yesterday, a federal three-judge panel in California ordered the state to cut its prison population by 40,000 in the next two years (via TalkLeft). In other words, the state has to release 40,000 prisoners because it's demonstrated that it can't take care of them.

Before you roll your eyes about a "bleeding heart" court in California siding with those damn people, consider some of what the court said in its lengthy opinion:

'California’s correctional system is in a tailspin,' the state’s independent oversight agency has reported. Tough-on-crime politics have increased the population of California’s prisons dramatically while making necessary reforms impossible. As a result, the state’s prisons have become places 'of extreme peril to the safety of persons'' they house, while contributing little to the safety of California’s residents. California 'spends more on corrections than most countries in the world,' but the state 'reaps fewer public safety benefits.' Although California’s existing prison system serves neither the public nor the inmates well, the state has for years been unable or unwilling to implement the reforms necessary to reverse its continuing deterioration.
That's at page 6 of the opinion (citations omitted).

California's prison population as soared 750% since the mid 1970s. In 2006, the system was running at double capacity. That overcrowding makes it impossible for California to provide even the basic medical and mental health care the Constitution requires:
The United States Constitution does not require that the state provide its inmates with state-of-the-art medical and mental health care, nor does it require that prison conditions be comfortable. California must simply provide care consistent with 'the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,' – care sufficient to prevent the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain or death. Tragically, California’s inmates have long been denied even that minimal level of medical and mental health care, with consequences that have been serious, and often fatal. Inmates are forced to wait months or years for medically necessary appointments and examinations, and many receive inadequate medical care in substandard facilities that lack the medical equipment required to conduct routine examinations or afford essential medical treatment. Seriously mentally ill inmates languish in horrific conditions without access to necessary mental health care, raising the acuity of mental illness throughout the system and increasing the risk of inmate suicide. A significant number of inmates have died as a result of the state’s failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical care. As of mid-2005, a California inmate was dying needlessly every six or seven days.
Emphasis mine (from p. 6-7, citations omitted).

Now, I know that lots of folks out there don't give two shits about inmates and would wonder whether any of them could "needlessly" die. But one of the grave responsibilities of society is to at least make sure that the people we lock up in cages aren't deprived of medical care. Not to mention, getting inmates sick and crazy - when 90% of them are going to get out at some point - is just counterproductive in the extreme.

The leitmotif of the court's opinion (what I gleaned from a quick skim, at least) is that this is not a new problem and California has been derelict in getting it fixed. It should be a warning to other states, because we're all going to have problems like this if we continue to insist on locking up large hunks of our population.

Trimming the prison population on the back end is a short term necessity, but the long term goal should be ensuring that fewer people wind up there in the first place.

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