Feature

California’s jails: The door swings open

The Supreme Court ruled that California's overcrowded prisons violate the Constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

It was a “win for dignity,” said The Economist in an editorial. Last week, in a bitterly divided, 5–4 decision, the United States Supreme Court affirmed that the nightmarish conditions in California’s prisons violate the Constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment,” and ordered the state to release up to 46,000 prisoners over the next two years. The state is now jamming 143,000 prisoners into jails designed for 80,000, with inmates doubled up in tiny, one-man cells, stacked like cordwood in prison gyms, and lying ill in telephone-booth-sized, urine-soaked cages. The decision drew bizarre, over-the-top dissents from Justices Samuel Alito, who predicted “a grim roster of victims,” and Antonin Scalia, who wrote sarcastically about the release of “fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.” In reality, most of those who’ll be released will be nonviolent criminals, said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. Besides, when American prisons become gulags approaching “Stalinist standards of barbarity, something has to be done.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose swing vote decided this case, “has no idea what he has done,” said Debra Saunders in the San Francisco Chronicle. Dumping tens of thousands of convicted felons back on the streets of California is “doomed to be followed by brutal crime,” which will prompt public calls for harsher punishments, and we will quickly be back where we started. California’s prisons may be crowded, said The Wall Street Journal, but they are crowded with “people who society has decided, through a fair and impartial judicial system, are dangerous or deserve to be punished.” For the court to effectively overturn tens of thousands of these convictions, Justice Scalia wrote, is “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.”

“Don’t get mad at the Supreme Court,” said Bruce Maiman in the Sacramento Bee. Blame this fiasco on California’s lawmakers. To please voters, they’ve instituted ever-tougher anti-crime policies that put and keep more and more people in jail, while ignoring the reality that these policies require the construction of expensive new prisons. What Scalia, Alito, and tough-on-crime conservatives forget, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post, is that the vast majority of prisoners are eventually released anyway. “It is absurd and outrageous to treat them like animals while hoping they return to us as responsible citizens.”

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