The Supreme Court–ordered releases from California’s horribly managed, terribly overcrowded prisons are humane and necessary. As a matter of judicial reasoning, however, my first sympathies are with justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito: The specific and sweeping nature of the Court’s ruling (California must cut its prison population by 30,000 within three years) does seem to overstep a limited role for the judiciary. That said, the evidence of the truly horrendous conditions in Golden State’s prison system — the third or fourth largest correctional complex in the world depending on how one counts — really do seem to constitute just the sort of cruel and unusual punishment the judiciary ought to prevent.
The real problem here isn’t the state’s decision to build lots of correctional facilities — doing so did play a major role in reducing its once sky-high crime rate — or even its “tough on crime” laws that appropriately increased sentences for violent offenders, but rather a political paralysis that prevented commonsense, common-ground tweaks to these policies from becoming law. Other states including both famously tough-on-crime Texas and liberal, flaky-as-California Hawaii have successfully and sweepingly reformed their corrections policies, cut prison populations, intensified community supervision, and seen their crimes rates continue to decline. And they’ve done it all while maintain prison populations at historically high levels and locking up many serious violent offenders forever.
California, possessed of a dysfunctional political culture, made few of these moves and instead gave corrections individual corrections officers enormous pay increases (a few givebacks have taken place recently) while neglecting every other aspect of prison administration aside from the bricks and mortar of the prison buildings. The horrendous conditions that resulted aren’t surprising and they are certainly an indictment of California’s political culture. That said, what’s justified in California is not justified elsewhere in the country. Many many states have woken up to new, conservative thinking on crime that emphasizes effective, proportional punishment rather than simply locking people up and hoping for the best. The Supreme Court’s ruling on California, sadly, was necessary, but one hopes other states’ legislative and executive branches will do more to move towards effective prison reform without any need for the involvement of the judiciary.
— Eli Lehrer is vice president of the Heartland Institute.