Realignment of California's prisons isn't enough
California’s long experiment with mass incarceration is drawing to a close. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rejection of the state’s latest request for a delay, California is staring at a federal court order to relieve prison overcrowding by releasing some 10,000 inmates by the end of the year.
It’s the end of an era that began 30 years ago with the passage of the three-strikes and other mandatory-sentencing laws that caused enormous increases in the prison population and budget. By 2006, 144,000 prisoners were stuffed into a system with a capacity of 84,000; costs had quadrupled; and medical care was so inadequate that inmates were dying unnecessarily at a rate of about one per week. Conditions amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” a federal court ruled, ordering the state to improve medical care and reduce its prison population to a mere 137.5 percent of capacity.
As California has struggled to comply, the facts have become clear: “Realignment” of the system by housing inmates in other states and county jails isn’t going to do it. The solution lies not in more money for more prisons, but in a reinvestment in drug and mental-health treatment, and a rethinking of the mandatory-sentencing laws that caused the problem.