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Jewish World Review
August 11, 2009
/ 21 Menachem-Av 5769
Is crowding criminogenic?
Debra J. Saunders
The first thing you have to know when you read that California's
33 adult prisons like the state prison in Chino where riots erupted over
the weekend are operating at 190 percent capacity is that 100 percent
capacity means one inmate per cell, single bunks in dormitories and no beds
in spaces not designed for housing. Put two inmates in a single cell and
bunk beds in lieu of single beds and you get 200 percent capacity.
The very notion of "capacity" has been somewhat misleading. As
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Seth Unger noted,
"There has always been an understanding that you could put two inmates in a
cell and have them safely housed."
Yet that understanding is lacking on the federal bench. Last
week three federal judges Stephen Reinhardt, Lawrence Karlton and Thelton
Henderson ordered the state to release more than 40,000 of the 150,000
prisoners in 33 prisons over the next two years. Their rationale:
"Overcrowding" impairs prisoners' right to "constitutionally adequate
medical and mental health care."
No worries, the judges explained in their 184-page opinion.
Releasing one in four prisoners can be done "without a meaningful adverse
impact on public safety." The judges seem to think that if they repeat that
mantra, they can make it so.
The ruling which frequently cites two decisions written by
(who else?) two of the three judges barely mentions a judge-appointed
federal receiver for the prison health care system, Clark Kelso, under whose
tenure health care spending per inmate rose to $13,778 per inmate in
2007-2008 an 81 percent increase over two years. Inmate deaths dropped
from 270 per 100,000 in 2006 to 218 per 100,000 in 2008. It is the failure
to note positive developments in prison health care that makes the judges'
By their own reckoning, the judges estimated the number of "bad
beds" triple bunks, two inmates in a cell and beds in rooms not meant to
house prisoners at 14,000 at the time of the trial. But they want to
release three times as many prisoners because they believe that "crowding"
is "criminogenic" or likely to produce criminals. That's the agenda
driving the opinion.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office is likely to appeal the
decision on the grounds that a panel of three unelected federal judges does
not have the right to run state prisons.
Even still, there must be people in his office who are gleeful
about this gift from the federal bench. The latest budget agreement calls
for $1.2 billion in cuts in the corrections budget with reductions in the
prison population by a like amount.
Or as Unger explained, there is little gain in sending the
70,000 parolees with "technical parole violations" to prison and conducting
a new battery of diagnostic tests to only release them three or four
months later. And: "It's not releasing 40,000 inmates as much as it is
targeting who comes into state prison in the first place."
But Schwarzenegger tried this in 2004 and the result, as the
Sacramento Bee reported, was 2,529 fewer inmates in prison on parole
violations, but 2,141 more parolees incarcerated for new crimes. Sounds
criminogenic to me.
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