Activist Supreme Court Demands California Release Prisoners, Conservatives Wet Their Pants

June 1, 2011 | Posted by Enrique

Seems like just a couple weeks ago I criticized the activist U.S. Supreme Court for deciding the police can break into your home without a warrant if they smell weed. In fairness, I should praise the Supremes when they get one right, as they did in their decision in Plata v. Brown last week. In that ruling, the Supremes ordered the state of California to deal with the vile condition of its prison system by releasing tens of thousands of convicts. Finally, some activism I can appreciate.

Apparently, some people have a problem with this. American rightwingers, for example, are always quick to stand up for government power when it waves a flag and wears a badge. So it should be no surprise conservatives are having fits about all the dangerous criminals about to be set free. But given the United States’ world-leading incarceration rate, isn’t it possible (or even likely) that a substantial number of criminals aren’t really dangerous?

The story so far…

Example of the menace to society that may be unleashed on California

You can read the Plata v. Brown in PDF format here. The gist of it is that California’s prison system is so extremely over-utilized that inmates’ rights to adequate medical care are being violated. Therefore, the population must be reduced. According to reports, the Golden State keeps over 140,000 folks behind bars, and the result of the Supremes’ decision is that more than 30,000 and possibly up to 46,000 convicted criminals will be set free.

At first blush, that might seem like a terrifying prospect. It certainly was for Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote in his dissent that “the majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California.” And while public safety isn’t technically a partisan issue, it does seem to be conservatives who get all outrageously outraged about it. Here’s Terry Eastland in The Weekly Standard – who I assume represents a mainstream conservative viewpoint – expressing his disappointment in “dubious liberal policy making” or whatever:

California’s prison system was built to house 80,000 inmates and now holds almost twice that number. The system is overcrowded, and maybe Plata will motivate elective officeholders to reduce it in ways that make sense. Earlier this spring Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that would transfer some inmates to county jails. Funds, however, have yet to be approved by a legislature notoriously strapped for cash. Work on some new correctional facilities authorized four years ago also has begun. But more jails—and the funds to build them—may be needed.

Law-abiding Californians have benefited over the past 20 years from policies that have locked up more felons for longer periods of time. In California and across the country crime rates have gone down—see the latest figures from the FBI, released the same day as Plata was decided—as the number of criminals actually incarcerated has gone up. But if Californians are safer than they used to be, they have yet to pay in full for that happier circumstance. It can be argued whose fault this is—the people or their political leadership. But, if public safety is a priority, the state should have funded facilities to accommodate the state’s large prison population.

Just so we’re clear, the conservative solution to the problem of prison overcrowding is to build more prisons. These are the folks who claim to be in favor of limited government, mind you.

I don’t mean to be obvious, but don’t conservatives realize that supporting prison building and tough sentencing helps the prison guard unions? If they did, maybe they’d show some imagination about how to solve an overcrowding problem the unions have helped create:

In three decades, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association has become one of the most powerful political forces in California. The union has contributed millions of dollars to support “three strikes” and other laws that lengthen sentences and increase parole sanctions. It donated $1 million to [former governor Pete Wilson] after he backed the three strikes law.

And the result for the union has been dramatic. Since the laws went into effect and the inmate population boomed, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. Salaries jumped: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year.

C’mon, conservatives – the unions are totally playing you for suckers here.

The other usual argument conservatives like Eastland make about America’s exceedingly high incarceration rate is that it has lowered crime. And it’s certainly true that crime of all kinds has been steadily declining since the early 90’s, during a time when America’s incarceration rate has increased. With that in mind, it seems reasonable to assume crime has gone down precisely because the U.S. has gotten tougher on crime.

But the U.S. has primarily gotten tougher on non-violent criminals, whom you would imagine are easier to incarcerate, being non-violent and all. Maybe that’s why the incarceration rate has grown much faster than crime has decreased:

Thanks, Center for Economic and Policy Research!

Christ, if we locked everyone up, the crime rate would be ZERO. Holy shit, we should totally do that!

Ahem. Despite Justice Alito’s baseless hysteria thoughtful concern about the safety of average Californians, the fact is America locks up a ridiculous number of non-violent criminals. My favorite libertarian publication Reason just put out a “special” issue dedicated to America’s law ‘n’ order mentality, and how it leads to abuses of power and unintended consequences. Unfortunately, none of it is online yet, so I can’t link to any of the articles or borrow their graphics (Thanks again, Center for Economic and Policy Research!).

One of the graphics I would have lifted was a pie chart that breaks down state prison populations by the relative violence its residents. As it turns out, only about half of incarcerated Americans are serving time for violent offenses. There other half are in for possessing/dealing drugs and property crimes.

Drug dealers are entrepreneurs, the very backbone of these here United States. Their incarceration is the result of a wasteful, wrong-headed drug war, and they wouldn’t be “dangerous” if not for prohibition. And people in prison for possession are by definition non-violent offenders, and there’s no reason to believe many or most of them are dangerous. Relax, Alito.

Property crime is serious, and deserves appropriate punishment, but again, there’s no reason to believe most shoplifters or petty thieves pose an inordinate threat to public safety. What, is vandalism a gateway drug to aggravated rape now? Folks like Eastland and Alito seem to believe that almost everyone in jail is one step away from being a serial killer, when almost half of them haven’t been convicted of a violent crime. It’s like they believe the government is bloody great at only locking up dangerous predators, never making mistakes, never overreaching…

Well, of course Alito believes that – he’s been a government employee his whole life. And Eastland is a former Justice Department official under Reagan, so it’s understandable these jokers would have a pro-government bias. But what about average conservatives? What’s their excuse for giving the government the benefit of doubt when it comes to criminal justice?

The U.S. already has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Building more prisons isn’t an adult solution to overcrowding in California or anywhere else. Hopefully, the Supremes’ decision will prompt the Golden State to behave like grownups for a change.


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