The issue of federal vs. state governmental authority has been a bone of contention within the American political system since its foundation. Today, national laws have become so pointedly exact on the issue that the federal government has virtually lost the ability to intervene in state affairs, unless there is a very strong disparity between a given policy and federal constitutional standards.
For that reason, it is rare for the federal courts to get involved without coming out on top, because they tend to be indisputably in the right. Nevertheless, that won’t stop most states’ political elite from complaining.
In February, a federal three-judge panel ruled that California must reduce prison overcrowding by as many as 55,000 inmates within three years. The number dropped down to 40,000 over the next few months, but it may have been a well-timed compromise. In dropping the headcount, the time factor was also reduced: California lawmakers would need to have a viable plan of action for dealing with the overcrowding by Sept. 18.
The issue of time is more critical than some might think. For one thing, it gives the state less time to create a strong case to appeal the federal court’s decision; lawmakers would have to create a less-than-perfect case and do it quickly, or else stall by creating an overcrowding reduction plan that, once created, would make prison population cuts a much more viable reality for Californians.
Furthermore, from a social justice perspective, when it comes to dealing with overcrowding, the sooner the better. California currently incarcerates more of its citizens than any other state in the union, and under the current conditions the state has been unable to provide constitutional levels of medical and mental health care. The California prison system was designed to support approximately half of its current number of inmates; in some facilities, the overcrowding is even greater than that. This cruel and unusual punishment has led to the fully preventable death of at least one prisoner every week within the state.
Apart from the moral concerns of placing human beings in unlivable conditions such as these, there is also the pressing issue of the state budget. The federal court estimated that the state could save between 800 and 900 million dollars annually by reducing the numbers of prisoners. That money could well be used to prop up the public education system, to rebuild in the wake of crippling wildfires or perhaps simply to pay off some of the state’s staggering deficit — all seemingly better options than continuing to hold people captive with no real plan for reform.
What the court doesn’t mention is the private capital that California’s state prisons generate. For those involved in the incarceration machine, putting people in prison is a very lucrative business, generating billions of dollars annually. The state won’t continue to support building new prisons if the overcrowding problem goes away. If the prisons stop being built, those companies that rely on the prison market to sell everything from suicide-proof toilets to closed-circuit televisions will be out of business.
So who wins, the man or the market? For the federal courts, the human element took center stage. But this week the state government, led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is making sure to put up a good fight — whether their case is strong or not, they’re headed to the Supreme Court.
In the California Republican Party’s defense, California does spend more on prison health care and has a lower mortality rate among prisoners than many other states. Yet somehow, the fact that other states are inflicting even greater evil (admittedly upon smaller numbers of people) doesn’t really make the current situation look any better. And the fact that California has recently made a huge investment in spending on inmate health care certainly doesn’t help the budget.
And then, of course, there’s the age-old argument that was so eloquently evoked by California Attorney General Jerry Brown when he said, “This order… does not recognize the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed.” Translation: It’s not that we want to keep paying to keep prisoners in jail, it’s just that we can’t afford to release them into society; they just aren’t like us, mentally.
Chances are most prisoners are not inherently evil; however, even if that were the case, the court laid out a few good ways to help set them free while still maintaining public safety. Diverting nonviolent felons to county programs and changing the probation system are just a couple of institutional reforms that could be hugely beneficial. Whether it be fear, economics or something else that propels state authorities to fight this ruling, one can only hope the Supreme Court will fulfill its federal duty and uphold the Constitution — and nothing more.
Rosaleen O’Sullivan is a junior majoring in English and international relations.