If we release prisoners to relieve overcrowding, then prisoners will rape, rob and murder our citizens. That is frightening; therefore we shouldn’t release prisoners, even though the State cannot afford to humanely incarcerate them.
This argument was at the heart of Justices Scalia and Alito’s dissenting opinions last week in the California prison case. The argument, while illogical, was meant to generate a specific emotion: fear.
And, to some degree, it worked. One former State Senator said the ruling will result in “flooding our neighborhoods with criminals.” A prominent legal blogger suggested that Californians: “Buy a gun. Get a dog. Put in an alarm system. Even seriously consider bars on the windows.”
But is this fear justified? And more importantly, is the public better off by continuing to pack offenders into prisons rather than release them?
Justice Scalia had no qualms about answering some of these difficult sociology questions, even after acknowledging that “law school and familiarity with pertinent Supreme Court precedents” provides no insight into them. He predicted that the release order will move a “staggering number” of prisoners with “intimidating muscles” out of prisons and into neighborhoods where “inevitable murders, robberies, and rapes” will occur.
But most involved, from Justice Kennedy to the California’s Correctional Chief Mathew Cate, concluded that the release order leaves California with broad discretion to decide which prisoners will be released. Rather than muscle-bound violent offenders, California is likely to start releasing low-level offenders or those serving short sentences, anyway. And that’s only if the overcrowding problem cannot be ameliorated by moving prisoners to county jails, as California Governor Jerry Brown has proposed.
Even if a large number of prisoners are released there is no consensus on whether crime in California will increase. Justice Alito contended that the release of prisoners will “lead to a grim roster of victims,” and he cited, as an example, to a Philadelphia prisoner release order in the early 1990’s that led to a crime wave.
Sociologists, however, have come to different conclusions about whether a large release of prisoners will inevitably lead to a corresponding large increase in crime. In a brief to the Supreme Court, a group of sociologists argued that a “growing body of evidence, including studies of early-release programs in Washington and Michigan, suggests that changing the length of incarceration is not associated with changes in either recidivism or crime rates. Hence, shorter prison terms do not equal more crime.”
The bigger question though is whether California will take the Supreme Court’s ruling seriously. Is there a threat to public safety by continuing to imprison people in overcrowded facilities?
The question is important because some experts claim that prison overcrowding will continue to plague California until meaningful reform takes place, such as revising the three-strike law. The question is also important because there is one statistic that is uncontested: a large majority of California prisoners will someday be released.
Studies have found that prison overcrowding correlates to elevated blood pressure, stress, sleep deprivation, and increased violent behavior. Overcrowded prisons also fail to offer educational and rehabilitation programs. UC Santa Cruz Professor Haney concluded that prison overcrowding negatively affects the medical and mental health of prisoners—and even scarier—that prisoners “carry the effects or consequences of that harm” back to the communities from which they came.
So these studies establish the sound conclusion that prisoners, warehoused in tripled-bunk beds, tightly stacked in converted gymnasiums; who shared, in some cases, one toilet with 50 other prisoners; who were inadequately treated for mental and physical health issues; or who were left in telephone booth-sized cages for over 24 hours, are essentially dehumanized by their incarceration.
And after California has dehumanized them and treated them like animals, should we really expect prisoners to enter society with a belief in the rule of law?
Now that is terrifying.
In addition to dehumanization, prison overcrowding produces other risks to public safety. Studies show that overcrowding—placing low-risk offenders in the same prison population as high-risk offenders—increases the chances that the low-risk inmates will commit new crimes and suggests that low-risk individuals are learning more serious criminal behavior from other prisoners.
Maybe this is why, after hearing from a number of experts, three federal judges in California and five Justices in Washington D.C. concluded that by relieving overcrowding, California may actually benefit from a long-term increase in public safety.
Maybe by treating even the worst of us in a humane manner, California and its citizens might actually be safer.
No, it’s not scary, but it sure makes sense.