Help the prisons, help the budget

Jamie Fellner is senior counsel for the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch.

On Aug. 4, a panel of three federal judges ordered California to reduce its prison population to address grossly deficient medical and mental healthcare systems behind bars. The ruling makes for harrowing reading.

Because of massive overcrowding, the court noted, California's prisons have become perilous places where inmates and staff are at risk of disease, mental illness and death. Inmates face "incompetence, indifference, cruelty and neglect." Preventable deaths occur weekly. Psychotic inmates are left untended. And serving a term under these conditions makes prisoners more likely to commit new crimes when they are released.

This was not the first time California was ordered to change. But after almost two decades of litigation, remedial plans, goals and measurements, receivers and special masters, the state's prison medical and mental healthcare systems have scarcely improved. Any gains have been quickly swept away by the ongoing tsunami of a growing prison population.

Conditions are so horrific that four former and current heads of prison systems in California and other states -- including two who have never before testified on behalf of prison plaintiffs and most likely never will again -- testified against the state and agreed that drastic action was necessary.

No one in California ever intended the prison system to operate at almost double its intended capacity. But no one took care of the problem either.

Numerous private and public commissions chronicled the conflict between an ever-expanding prison population and constrained resources. They put forward eminently sensible solutions to staunch the inflow of prisoners without compromising public safety -- reducing returns to prison for minor parole violations, reducing recidivism by providing programs to prisoners that would equip them to succeed on the outside, and reforming senselessly harsh mandatory sentencing.

But their carefully marshaled evidence and arguments have been ignored. Whether from a lack of will, clout or guts, California officials failed to avert this long-foreseeable crisis.

Nearly three years ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger finally recognized the "conditions of extreme peril" in his state's prisons and declared a state of emergency. Since then, though, he has done little more to address the problem than to blame the Legislature. The Legislature, a remarkably fractious, undisciplined and unprincipled body by any measure, in turn has proved effective at blocking good ideas to reduce the prison population -- and ineffective at approving any.

So it has been up to the courts. The genius of the country's founders was to create a system that authorizes federal courts to act when the executive and legislative branches acquiesce -- through sins of omission or commission -- to blatant constitutional violations.

The court's decision that the state must cut its prison population by 40,000 over two years comes at a propitious moment. Because of the unprecedented budget crisis, the state must reduce its expenditures -- among which prison costs figure greatly.

The fiscal imperative of cutting corrections expenditures thus dovetails with the constitutional imperative of reducing overcrowding. Reducing the prison population will also free up resources needed to improve medical and mental healthcare and for expanding cost-effective, community-based rehabilitation programs that will in turn help reduce the prison population even further.

Unfortunately, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, eyeing a possible run for governor, talks of appealing the federal judges' decision. That would be foolish. He should sit down with corrections officials, legislators and other stakeholders to help map out sensible ways to meet the court's order -- the court left it up to the state to determine how best to cut the population; for example, by keeping more low-level nonviolent offenders out of prison and by releasing the elderly and disabled.

Instead of pandering to the public's fears, Brown and other state officials should explain that the court order does not mean that dangerous murderers and rapists will be released. Instead, a smaller prison population will enhance community safety, as well as meet the dictates of the U.S. Constitution, common sense and fiscal responsibility.

No other state faces a prison crisis as acute as California's. But most face the pressure of relentless prison population growth, and all of them face strained budgets. Many already have woefully deficient prison medical and mental healthcare services.

Absent a miraculous and massive infusion of cash, states face a choice. They can reduce prison populations by instituting sensible criminal-justice policies, reserving prison for dangerous offenders and using alternative strategies for low-level, nonviolent offenders and parole violators. Or they can go the California route and let the crisis get steadily worse until the courts intervene.

One can only hope that economic necessity and the court order will finally lead California to do the right thing. It remains to be seen whether and when other states will follow suit.

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