Tim Rutten: A prison system we deserve


On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s prisons are so overcrowded they violate constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment by systematically depriving inmates of minimal mental health and medical care.

Writing for the court’s 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — a Californian — pointed to the use of “telephone-booth-sized cages without toilets” to house suicidal prisoners. A lower court earlier said that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.”

None of this comes as a surprise. The suits to which this ruling responds were filed more than two decades ago, and California has allowed these conditions to persist despite more than 70 lower court orders. California’s 33-prison network was designed to confine 80,000 convicts, but at times over recent years it has held more than 160,000. On Monday, there were 143,435 inmates, which still is 180% of capacity, as Terry Thornton of the Department of Corrections told the Wall Street Journal. The court has given Sacramento two more years to cut the prison population by 33,630, which would bring the total to 109,805 inmates, or 137.5% of intended capacity — hardly a draconian requirement.


Monday’s ruling is as much an indictment of this state’s politics as it is of our correctional system, and it ought to prod us into considering a couple of unpleasant truths: One, America generally — and California in particular — simply sends too many people to prison for too long relative to their offenses. Two, this state’s prisons are perhaps the prime example of our relatively recent popular impulse to insist on having things for which we don’t want to pay — in this case, mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders. The situation has been exacerbated by the intrusion of another recent trend: the infusions of single-issue politics into our criminal justice system.

Sometimes this has amounted to wholesale overhauls, as with the 1990 Proposition 115 or the 1994 three-strikes initiative; sometimes, it involves people coalescing around a particular kind of crime and demanding huge increases in prison time for committing it. In either instance, prison funding is an afterthought.

Like the court’s dissenters, California prosecutors and the Legislature’s Republican leaders predicted that Monday’s ruling will set in motion a wave of criminality. Given the significant number of prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent crimes or for violating their parole after conviction for such offenses, that doesn’t seem inevitable. Moreover, Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to shift prisoners into county jails would seem a good hedge against a crime wave, providing the Legislature will fund it.

There again, though, we encounter the problem of chronic governmental dysfunction. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga) muttered darkly that the Democrats simply “are looking for any excuse they can to try to have more taxes.” His solution was fast-tracking the construction of new prisons and persuading Washington to take custody of the undocumented immigrants serving time for felonies in California. In the current climate, there is no conceivable way either of those things is going to happen — hence, more wishful thinking.

If there’s anything to which a fair degree of humility ought to attach itself these days, it’s an opinion on the causes of crime and their remedies. About the same time the Supreme Court released its ruling in the California prison case, the FBI put out its updated set of national crime statistics. To the bewilderment of experts in virtually every camp surrounding this highly politicized issue, crime has continued to decline to the lowest levels in 40 years. These declines certainly confound those criminologists who are inclined to link crime to economic deprivation and joblessness. Despite the savagery of the current recession, for example, robbery rates fell by 8% in 2009 and by 9.5% last year. By the same token, the national prison populations actually have fallen over the last few years. So much for the incarceration-rate-is-destiny argument.

The issue California now confronts, however, doesn’t really turn on solving this social scientific mystery. Our problem is, as the court pointed out, that overcrowding has reduced this state’s prisons to a state of constitutional and human indecency — and that’s a moral and legal scandal. Though it’s been quoted with the frequency of cliche, Dostoyevsky’s admonition remains true: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”