Tuesday, February 5, 2013

California: Finding a Balance Between Overcrowded Prisons and Prison Sentences

Since the 1980s, the United States has seen the prison population double.  While the United States has less than five percent of the world’s population, it has about a quarter of the world’s prisoners. [1] There are several reasons for this drastic increase, including excessive prison sentencing and imprisonment for minor crimes such as writing bad checks.

Until recently, the prison population kept growing until there was a notable decline in 2011, with state prison populations falling 0.9 percent.[2] Although, the same has not held true in federal prisons where there has been an increase of 3.4 percent.  The recent decline can be partially attributed to the holding in Brown v. Plata, a class action suit, in which inmates claimed a violation of the Eight Amendment due to a lack of medical services as a result of severe prison overcrowding.   In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held, that a population limit would be placed on California’s state prisons in order to remedy the violations of prisoners’  Eighth Amendment rights.[3] More specifically, the Court said that as many as 46,000 prisoners should be released.[4] Not surprisingly, after the 2011 decision of Brown v. Plata, “about 70 percent of the state-level drop was due to California.”[5] There have also been a slight drop of state prisoner populations in twenty five other states, but the restrictions placed on California is what have made this national decline so notable.

However, in January 2013, Governor Jerry Brown stated that since “the prison emergency is over,” the federal government should end oversight over the state prison system and allow for the state to once again determine how many prisoners to house in their facilities.[6] While the decision has brought about some notable improvements in medical care and the sleeping quarter of the prisoners, it has failed to address other important problems such as sentencing laws and rising crime rates.

In the Brown v. Plata decision, Justice Alito, stated in his dissent that placing such a restriction on the number of inmates in California could put the safety of the people of California in jeopardy.[7] Was this true?  Since 2011, counties have imprisoned “lower-level criminal for shorter periods or not at all, opting instead for probation, electronic monitoring or home detention” due to budget restrictions.[8] During the same time FBI statistics have shown that violent crimes and property crimes have risen.[9] But several public policy groups argue that even though the state has seen the biggest crime increase in twenty years, people are analyzing this data in an overly-simplistic manner since crime rates vary greatly by community.  The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice states that “the best data available suggests that offenders and parolees who have not committed violent or serious crimes can be supervised at the local level without jeopardizing public safety”.[10]

Governor Brown’s suggestion that California be allowed to once again dictate the number of prisoners in prisons is not the solution.  However, if the Court’s decision was not sufficient to efficiently lower the number of prisoners in state facilities while at the same time decreasing crime, what additional measures should be taken?  Although the state budget is a major concern, alternatives must be looked at that do not violate prisoner’s constitutional rights and that still serve as deterrence for future crimes being committed.

Elizabeth Rivera
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief


1 comment:

  1. With prisons so overcrowded, you are seeing people not even serving half their sentence.