Feb 152009
 
Authors: Editorial Board Harvard Crimson Harvard

(U-WIRE) – In the next few years, up to 57,000 inmates may walk free from California’s prisons.

On Monday, a panel of federal judges ordered the state to reduce its incarcerated population by up to 40 percent within a two-to-three year period in order to relieve severe overcrowding.

The court stated that overcrowding was the primary reason for what it called “unconstitutional conditions” in California’s prisons – conditions that judges said were so poor that prisoners regularly commit suicide or die from lack of adequate health care.

This drastic nature of Monday’s ruling underlines the serious practical problems within not only California prisons, but also within our current prison system as a whole.

Prisons at around 200 percent capacity – with thousands bunked in hallways and gyms for lack of housing space – cannot possibly provide an acceptable level of medical or mental health care to inmates.

In addition to prompting action to reduce overcrowding, we hope that the court order will also be viewed as a call for a more thoughtful, long-term evaluation of our theory of punishment.

Strategies, such as outsourcing prisoners to other states or privatizing prisons, do little to solve the deeper issues that cause overcrowding in the first place – we need a critical examination of the ways in which we deal with those who have broken the law.

While rising crime rates contribute to a continually growing prison population, the current capacity issue is also a product of problems in our legal system and our conception of punishment.

The legal system is designed to penalize those who commit crimes and to decrease the likelihood of persons committing subsequent crimes – for many offenses the focus should not be on punishment, but on rehabilitation and preventive measures.

Reforming sentencing policies could go a long way in taking the pressure off crowded prisons. Instead of heading to prison, more inmates could be sent to rehabilitation facilities that would help them prepare to reenter society once their sentences are up, going a long way toward reducing high recidivism rates.

It is worthwhile to also consider decriminalizing or at least reducing sentences for many minor crimes, especially nonviolent offenses.

Decreasing the number of crimes that apply under three-strike policies-a prominent feature of the California judicial system – could reduce the number of second and third-strike offenders serving long sentences for petty crimes or technical infractions.

Regardless of what course of action the state of California undertakes, it should do so promptly.

California state officials, including the governor, have indicated that they will appeal the mandate, possibly to the Supreme Court, seemingly in contradiction to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s 2006 declaration of a state of emergency because of risks found to be associated with severe overcrowding in state prisons.

Overburdened prison facilities essentially hand inmates harsher sentences than they deserve, decreasing their likelihood of real rehabilitation and increasing the possibility that these men and women will continue to cycle through the system.

While the state may have reason to object to the court order’s imposition of a numerical mandate on prison population reductions, it should take this as an opportunity to make a comprehensive qualitative assessment of the situation in order to make constructive changes.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, although it is only the third most populous country – one out of every 100 American adults is currently behind bars.

We must continue to scrutinize our judicial and penal system to determine whether justice is being administered fairly and reasonably – making an effort to ensure that punishment fits the crime – and correct any inequalities that cause some groups to be punished disproportionately over others.

A modern, civilized nation cannot simply lock people away and forget about them. Good government must concern itself with the welfare of all elements of society, even those that have erred against it.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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