Wednesday, December 29, 2010

More Construction... This Time, in California

In the heels of the report from Michigan come two new construction projects within California, both funded by AB 900. In Calaveras County, the local jail's capacity is to be quadrupled. And the expansion in San Bernardino adds maximum security beds.

Unsurprisingly, the Republican Caucus has been following on the progress made with AB 900 funding. From their perspective, "[i]t does not help that CDCR seems to have little direction and produces a new strategy plan on an annual basis. In the meantime, Democrats are pushing policies through the legislature – and supported by the Governor – that decrease the population through early release and place the burden of monitoring and controlling these individuals on local entities. Sadly, these are the exact same policies and actions that AB 900 was supposed to prevent."

From an empirical perspective, however, it is the massive construction of more prison cells that should be prevented. Building prisons is akin to building public highways; as we build more to prevent congestion, congestion gradually increases to fill the volume available. It is frightening to think that incarcerating one in 100 Californians is not enough. But perhaps they are the "wrong" kind of Californians, and therefore the Republican caucus should lose no sleep over them.

In any case, these new construction projects highlight the dark and problematic side of the Plata/Coleman decision. In an effort to be courteous to the state, and not to micromanage its affairs, the three-judge panel asked for a population reduction without mandating methods the state might employ to achieve such reduction. In his response to SCOTUS Justices, Don Specter seemed to agree that building new facilities would be among the range or responses that would be in compliance with the order. I actually think a narrow interpretation of the Plata/Coleman order is not only possible, but reasonable. The court did use the word "reduction" and stated a number of inmates. To say that "reduction" is the same as "dilution" of inmates is a bit of an interpretive push. But the real point is, of course, that building new prisons, in the long run, will push California away from compliance with the order, because the new facilities will, in due course, become just as overcrowded as the old ones.

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