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September 20, 2014

Despite the threat of another Plata, a number of states' prisons remain way over capacity

I expected that one consequence of the Supreme Court's affirmance of the prisoner release order for California in Plata would be that other states would work even harder than usual to keep their prison overcrowding in check so as not to risk Plata-like litigation in their states.  But, as this new Washington Post piece highlights, there are still a significant number of states that are still dealing with significant prison overcrowding problems (though Plata still seems on their minds).  Here are excerpts from a piece headlined "Prisons in these 17 states are over capacity":

The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has exploded over the last three decades, to the point that nearly one in every 200 people is behind bars. And though the rate of growth has slowed, and even declined over the last five years, the tough-on-crime policies and longer sentences that have sent prison rates skyward present a huge problem for states: Where do they put all those people?

That problem is especially acute in 17 states where the prison population is now higher than the capacity of the facilities designed to hold them. Those states, still recovering from a recession that decimated budgets, have to decide whether to build facilities with more beds, turn to private contractors, relax release policies — or simply stuff more prisoners into smaller spaces.

At the end of 2013, Illinois was housing 48,653 prisoners, according to data published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The state’s prison facilities are designed to hold just 32,075 prisoners, meaning the system is operating at 151 percent of capacity. North Dakota’s 1,571 prisoners live in space meant for 1,044 people, 150 percent of capacity. Nebraska, Ohio, Delaware, Colorado, Iowa and Hawaii are all holding a prison population equal to more than 110 percent of capacity.

What scares states the most is the prospect of federal courts intervening and ordering new action. California has been under court order since 2009 to reduce its prison population, which is far beyond capacity. The state has spent billions housing inmates in county jails or sending them to facilities run by private for-profit companies.

“No state actively wants the federal courts to come in and take over operation of their state government functions,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The possibility of federal court intervention has spurred Alabama to begin reviewing its corrections procedures. A Justice Department investigation released in January found conditions at the state’s women’s prison violate the Constitution, and DOJ said it would look into conditions at other state prison facilities.

In June, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) launched the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to study the state’s criminal justice system and make recommendations for easing overcrowding. The state’s prison facilities are designed to house 13,318 inmates, though operationally the facilities can hold 26,145 people. The current prisoner population, 26,271 inmates, is 197 percent of the lowest possible capacity and 100.5 percent of the highest number.

Court intervention “has been a powerful motivator over the last couple of years for Alabama to tackle its situation, independent of all the in-state concerns with overcrowding,” Gelb said.

September 20, 2014 at 12:40 PM | Permalink


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Plata is such a joke--no one should take it seriously. And states certainly shouldn't pre-emptively reduce incarceration because they're afraid of Plata.

Posted by: federalist | Sep 20, 2014 2:23:10 PM

horse pucky fed. If the state's facilities are setup to handle "x" number of individuals. That's what they need to handle. it's not rocket science they tell CIVILAIN facilities every day EXACTLY how many people can be in them or be in violation of the law and liable for a shit load of fines and jail time. Why do you think they are special because they are a gov't agency. Sorry but bull shit. If anything they should be held to a Higher standard.

as for the decision itself. What amazes me is nobody has called the febs on their own violation of it based on the calif numbers.

Posted by: rodsmith | Sep 20, 2014 7:50:12 PM

Oh no, 110 percent overcrowding. The AVERAGE in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is around 137 percent, and Medium- and High-security joints are over 40 and 50 percent, respectively.

The BOP's facilities are also understaffed, by the by, and there aren't enough resources to meet inmate demand for essential programming, like substance abuse treatment and basic medical care.

And yet not a word about the Fed BOP having the EXACT same kind of "crowding" based failure to provide services that California was found with in Plata.

Posted by: Jay Hurst | Sep 21, 2014 7:48:07 AM

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