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December 6, 2010

NY Times editorial on California's prison overcrowding case

This morning's New York Times has this extended editorial headlined "The Crime of Punishment," which comments on last week's Supreme Court argument in the California prisons case. Here are excerpts:

In 2005, when a federal court took a snapshot of California’s prisons, one inmate was dying each week because the state failed to provide adequate health care.  Adequate does not mean state-of-the-art, or even tolerable.  It means care meeting “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” in the Supreme Court’s words, so inmates do not die from rampant staph infections or commit suicide at nearly twice the national average.

These and other horrors have been documented in California’s prisons for two decades, and last week they were before the Supreme Court in Schwarzenegger v. Plata.  It is the most important case in years about prison conditions.  The justices should uphold the lower court’s remedy for addressing the horrors....

The case will most likely be resolved by a vote of 5 to 4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote decisive.  At the oral argument, he said that “at some point,” the court must say “overcrowding is the principal cause, as experts have testified, and it’s now time for a remedy.”  After 20 years of litigation and 70 court orders, that point has come.

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.

America’s prison system is now studied largely because of its failure — the result of an expensive approach to criminal justice shaped by fear-driven ideology.  California’s prisons embody this overwhelming failure.

December 6, 2010 at 09:25 AM | Permalink


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This editorial is, not to put too fine a point on it, a pack of lies. One of its main points is that, when we have less imprisonment, we have less crime.

To say this is counter to the historical evidence is something of an understatement. As "incarceration nation" has grown over roughly the last two decades, the crime rate has FALLEN by more than 40%.

It's not all that hard to figure out. When you take off the street the people who are committing crime, less crime gets committed.

On the other hand, if we want to look at what "failure" of the criminal justice system actually means, we don't have to look far. In the late 60's and 70's, in the heyday of the liberal rehabilitation model the "experts" want to bring back, the crime rate doubled. THAT is what failure looks like -- not that the NYT is about to tell us.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 6, 2010 9:43:05 AM

all that may well be true bill. BUT if your going to lock up whole segments of your citizens you have a responsibility to be humane about it. Nobody is saying they need to live like kings..but they do have a constutional RIGHT TO LIFE!

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 6, 2010 2:21:13 PM

According to the California Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crimes per 100,000 population were 1103.9 in 1992 and 453.6 in 2009.

According to the New York Times, this is "no reduction."

Must be new math.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Dec 6, 2010 6:45:51 PM

Kent --

This means that I owe the board a quasi-apology. I said that crime had fallen in the era of "mass incarceration" by "more than 40%." That is still technically true, but somewhat misleading. The statistics you provide show that violent crime in the nation's largest and most representative state has fallen by nearly 60%.

One thing I said remains fully correct, however: The NYT editorial is a pack of lies.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 6, 2010 6:59:56 PM

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