I just don’t know.
Reflecting upon the recent Supreme Court decision which requires California to deal with overcrowded prisons by reducing prisons by 30,000 inmates. There were two conservative dissenting opinions. Sam Alito’s writing, as reported in the NYT, leans toward the military model to describe the incarcerated.
In a second dissent, Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., addressed what he said would be the inevitable impact of the majority decision on public safety in California.
He summarized the decision this way: “The three-judge court ordered the premature release of approximately 46,000 criminals — the equivalent of three Army divisions” (italics in original).
I think the simplistic scapegoating of prisoners like this is at the core of the California overcrowding problem. They aren’t soldiers, or enemies, they are people who are locked up. Sure they may have been convicted of a crime, but that doesn’t end their humanity — it emphasizes it. To compare them in size to three Army divisions suggests that a legion of Huns is being released to hold innocent civilians hostage.
It is a choice of language which distracts from the very real problem of prison over crowding. California currently houses about 140,000 inmates, the requirement to reduce the prisons by 30,000 gives you some sense of conditions. Of course this new number — 110,000 prisoners, the maximum we are allowed to currently lock up — is still 137.5% of housing capacity!
And lets be clear, this ruling doesn’t mean we have to release prisoners. California can also use “new construction, out-of-state transfers and using county facilities,” according to Justice Kennedy.
All three of these alternatives seem pretty grim. Prison building boondoggles, paying other states to house our inmates when we are so far in debt, and of course the trickle down from prison to county lock up will wreck a number of communities. And opportunities for circumvention abound. California can also ask for more time after two years. And of course politicians will jump through every hoop to avoid being seen as soft on the incarcerated. Judicial unfunded mandate with a political poison pill makes the mass release of inmates portrayed by the dissenting justices unlikely to happen.
Can we just own up and start seriously diverting non-violent offenders? And stop labeling people locked in the language of enemy creation?