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.
The Court’s opinion does not require the release of a single individual or “felon.” It merely requires the state to reduce the overcrowding of prisons – from 200 percent to 137.5 percent of capacity – and allows the state to decide the means. The lower court fully considered public safety, hearing nearly 10 days of statistical evidence on reforms that safely reduced prison populations in places like Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, and counties in California. The lower court suggested methods to reduce overcrowding—such as non-prison sanctions for technical parole violations (like missing a parole meeting), earned time credits for exemplary conduct in prison, and diversion and treatment for low-risk offenders—that would have little to no adverse impact on public safety and may actually make us safer.
Thousands of people are currently in California prisons for non-violent low-level offenses that are considered felonies—like using small amounts of drugs, writing bad checks, or stealing $2.95 in Godiva chocolates. Locking up these people – at a cost of $47,000 per person per year – when they pose little threat to public safety and California faces a $10 billion budget shortfall are unwise and wasteful. Using non-prison alternatives for those who breach these types of laws is the first place California can start when complying with Plata.
The Court’s decision highlights what criminal justice advocates and state legislators across the political spectrum have already realized: it is “possible to reduce the prison population ‘in a manner that preserves public safety and the operation of the criminal justice system’” and also preserves the Constitution.