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Draconian Prison Sentences Smack Up Against Economic Reality

The announcement of the May 24, 2011, 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating that  the California Dept. of Corrections  reduce its bloated inmate population by 33,000 from approximately 144,000 is a long time coming, and directly results from the state’s short-sighted, “law and order” campaign carried out by politicians who had effectively  highjacked the prison reform discussion years ago so as to derail meaningful reform policies.

Apparently, California believed in a corrections model premised on the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Well, now that the consequences- or downside- of this overarching, myopic view  is in California’s face, the state must grapple with what it has created for its people, inside and out of prison. That is, the disgorgement of 33,000 inmates who will be ill-prepared for life on the streets.

This conundrum was a long time coming. Prisoners, on the whole, are politically impotent. That is, those advocating for prisoner’s rights may as well spit into the wind. For most states, it is easier to implement “get tough” legislation than to provide the necessary funds to carry out these legislative mandates.

California is a case study for the devastating effects of implementing harsh sentencing practices without recognizing that non-violent offenders outnumber violent offenders and that most non-violent offenders will return to society. A quick read of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion underscores the prison conditions and practices that gave rise to the lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment violative of the U.S. Constitution’s  Eighth Amendment.

References to suicides, inmate deaths from non-existent or substandard medical care and overcrowded conditions are peppered throughout J. Kennedy’s opinion. Too bad California could not have foreseen this burgeoning crisis in the early 90′s when this lawsuit began. Yet, since the begining of this litigation California has failed miserably in addressing their problem.

Most states, I suspect, are facing this looming debacle. Why? Because most states were swept up in this “law and order” publicity campaign throughout the country in the mid-70′s and up to a year or two ago. With the economy tanking and a lack of resources to  remedy inmate overpopulation, states will have to resolve their ”prison problem” or risk having the courts intervene and dictate how the states will address this crisis.

It is not enough to turn a blind eye to the problem,  hoping the it will correct itself. I don’t know how deep and pervasive this attitude of denial runs, but I’m reminded of a criminal defendant I represented in Sacramento, Ca., federal court. During the proceeding my client, similar to many of the other defendants in this narcotics conspiracy case, was detained. He spent an inordinate amount of time in the jail.

After negotiating a settlement and during sentencing, I explained to the judge the horrific conditions I had been told existed in the Sacramento County Jail. Requesting jail credit for the time my client spent in custody, I asked the Court to consider granting my client twice as much jail credit based on the deplorable conditions my client endured on a daily basis.

The judge quickly rejected my request, noting that if the defendant didn’t want to endure such conditions, then he should stay out of Sacramento. Apparently, it was lost on the judge that my client had never stepped foot in California; he was indicted in the Northern District-Eastern Division while residing in Minnesota.

Hopefully, my knowledge of the conditions at that jail is not typical of the community at large. Unfortunately, the jail’s conditions were well known by the criminal defense bar as well as the law enforcement community in Sacramento.

Maybe the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate will be the impetus for true, genuine prison reform. If not, then we must wait for the next court to intervene. Until then, “out of sight, out of mind.”

171 thoughts on “Draconian Prison Sentences Smack Up Against Economic Reality

  1. Quote* “out of sight,out of mind” is a great part of our current culture in regards to the prison system. If we continue to ignore how the system does not work, how will we ever resolve the problem of over crowding? Economics may dictate what gets done or does not, but we still need someone to standup and be that voice for those who have none. ;-)

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    • I respect your opinion, even if you disagree with my position. But you have to admit that, as a nation that incarcerates more people than any other country, we must assess how and why we feel compelled to lock up so many people, knowing that mere retribution does not advance the inmate’s path to recovery. Instead, it constitutes a huge financial drain of our resources.
      A simple cost-benefit analysis quickly dispels the idealistic notion that mere punishment has some inherent benefit to society, other than keeping the rascals at bay while the rest of us go on our merry way living out our american ideals. Sometimes, it feels like you are whistling past the graveyard when you read the statistics on incarceration in America.
      For many of us, the best remedy is “out of sight, out of mind.”

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  9. i had to go through it again since i could not grab the entire escence of the post in one go.That was a very articulate and logical point you make there.I appreciate you letting me know your thinking on this.

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  12. i had to go through it again since i could not grab the entire escence of the post in one go.That was a very articulate and logical point you make there.I appreciate you letting me know your thinking on this.

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