Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Crime of Punishment in California: NYT Editorial

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an editorial on the California correctional crisis, apropos the Plata/Colemen arguments.

At the intense, sometimes testy argument, Justice Samuel Alito revealed the law-and-order thinking behind the California system. “If 40,000 prisoners are going to be released,” he said overstating the likely number, “you really believe that if you were to come back here two years after that you would be able to say they haven’t contributed to an increase in crime?” To Justice Alito, apparently, it was out of the realm of possibility that, rather than increasing crime, the state could actually decrease it by reducing the number of prison inmates.

Among experts, as a forthcoming issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy relates, there is a growing belief that less prison and more and better policing will reduce crime. There is almost unanimous condemnation of California-style mass incarceration, which has led to no reduction in serious crime and has turned many inmates into habitual criminals.

Jonathan Simon writes in Governing Through Crime:

For the Court's "liberals", the staggering portrait drawn by the many experts who testified before both original courts and the 3-Judge panel of the way physical and mental health needs are unmet appears to have broken through their own instincts to defer on criminal matters. The routine way in which California prisoners met death not through lethal injections, but by fatal neglect of their obvious and remediable medical needs, or by suicide after florid psychotic symptoms were ignored, animated a livelier questioning of the state in a criminal matter than in a long time. The Court's "conservatives", stripped of their preferred grounds of deference to the state's penological rationality, by the sheer scale of California's organizational failures over a twenty year period, were left to rest on the primal fear of violent crime and the biblical conviction that keeping people locked up must mean fewer crimes. Of course even if the Supreme Court (5-4), upholds the population cap, it will not end mass incarceration, that claim was not yet before the Court (and probably never will be).

Sobering words.

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