CA Prisons—"Cruel and Unusual" Punishment

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Inmates in California's prison system live under a regime that, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment due to overcrowding at the 33 adult prisons.

For years, the courts have expressed concerns about the inhumane conditions of a system designed to hold 80,000 people, which at times has housed twice that many and now houses 143,000 prisoners. This has led to overcrowded conditions that defy minimum standards of human dignity.

The problem did not emerge overnight. It is the result of many years without a sound sentencing policy, which was then followed by the implementation of strictly punitive laws such as the three strikes and out law. The concept of inmate rehabilitation disappeared. Prisons turned into warehouses of people where dangerous criminals are housed together with those convicted of addiction-related offenses and the mentally ill. This is not the right way to proceed, and the high court has condemned the result of this unreasonable course of action.

For financial reasons, California Governor Jerry Brown now wants to return a number of inmates from state prisons to county jails. Passing on the cost of housing prisoners is a fiscal maneuver in times of crisis, but it is far from being a good policy.

A long-term solution requires a change of mindset toward the corrections system, which will result in a reduction of the number of people behind bars. For example, the three strikes law should be reformed and individuals who are arrested for drugs and addiction problems should be treated and rehabilitated in a treatment center rather than in prison. The mentally ill deserve to be treated elsewhere as well.

These changes can help reduce the high level of recidivism, which also impacts the large numbers of inmates.

The high court's decision once again calls attention to the serious problem of prison overcrowding-an issue that requires more complex solutions than simply opening the prison doors.