By Inimai M. Chettiar, Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Chettiar serves as national legislative counsel to achieve smart criminal justice reform in states across the country. She has published scholarship on the use of economic analysis to promote laws advancing social welfare.
Yesterday’s Supreme Court opinion in Brown v. Plata is controversial only to those who do not understand the magnitude of the overincarceration epidemic in this country. The high court upheld an order mandating California to reduce prison overcrowding to remedy systemic constitutional violations. The opinion in no way mandates the blanket “early release” of prisoners; instead, it encourages the state to use prisons only when doing so would be cost-effective and increase public safety. It finds that California's prisons are so overcrowded that they violate the standard of decency required by the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Unfortunately, the Plata dissenters use alarmist language that would make readers believe Harold Camping predicted the Rapture a little too early. According to the dissenters, “three army divisions” of bloodthirsty “convicted felons” - “who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym" - will soon descend upon California’s neighborhoods, leaving behind “a grim roster of victims” with “terrible things sure to happen” to us all.
But in their over 30 pages of opinion, the dissenters neglect to mention several key facts. Foremost, reducing prison overcrowding will actually lead to less crime and safer neighborhoods. Our extremist sentencing policies have bloated our prisons so severely that not only are they unsafe, unhygienic, and unconstitutional, but also excessively costly and actually a detriment to public safety. The majority notes (quoting former California Governor Schwarzenegger) that “’overcrowding causes harm to people and property, leads to inmate unrest and misconduct . . . and increases recidivism as shown within this state and in others.’” California’s communities must then absorb individuals returning from prison who are often more dangerous than when they left. Improving prison conditions makes us all safer.