On May 23, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state of California to address its overcrowded prisons. Between its 33 prisons, the state has the medical and logistical capacity to house 80,000 inmates. At the time Justice Kennedy delivered the Court’s 5-4 opinion, the prison populations were at nearly double that, approximately 156,000 inmates.
But the Supreme Court’s decision serves as only a temporary reprieve for California’s overburdened prisons. It is no accident that the state finds itself in this quagmire — a long, intentional series of policy choices have structurally guided tens of thousands of lives into handcuffs and orange jumpsuits. The Supreme Court has erroneously deemed the question “How many prisoners should be in California?” more important than “How did that many prisoners get there to begin with?”
The state has had a long and troubled history with its system of incarceration.
In 1994, the state passed its contentious Three Strikes and You’re Out law, which requires those convicted of any three felonies to serve sentences of 25 years to life. Keeping in mind that the “three strikes” refer to charges, and not cases, a Californian can be (and has been) handed down such a sentence for three charges such as felony petty theft — in one case for as little as stealing a dollar’s worth of change from the coin box of a parked car.
In 1997, the state mandated every prisoner to be released be placed on parole, resulting in thousands of ex-convicts being sent back for minor violations. In some cases, the 1994 Three Strikes law meant they had just “struck out.”
In a summary conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, the state prison population grew three times faster than the general adult population from 1990 to 2005. Presently, there are more inmates serving 25 to life sentences as a result of the Three Strikes law in the state of California than there are death-row inmates nationwide.
A plethora of other troubling factors — equally damaging by their own measures — lend themselves to the prison’s overcrowding. Poor rehabilitation programs show a 70 percent rate of recidivism, or the frequency of ex-convicts returning to prison. Other figures, like the fact that 63 percent of Latino inmates haven’t completed high school, suggest a dark school-to-prison pipeline.
And so far, every measure the state government has implemented to ease the overcrowding has failed.
In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allocated $7.7 billion to construct and expand prison facilities, including 53,000 additional beds for prisoners, to have been completed by 2009. As of now, none of the projects have been completed, and just over 8,000 of the beds have been made. What little progress was made was largely the result of shipping inmates out of state to private prisons and transferring others to county jails.
In a time of economic hardship, the state shouldn’t expand its broken system by building bigger prisons. It should prevent people from landing there to begin with.