The United States Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state of Californias must dramatically reduce overcrowding in its prison system. The 5-4 decision was immediately decried by those concerned that it would set free thousands of dangerous criminals.
That is possible, but far from certain. In any case, it misses the larger issue: Government cannot simultaneously pander to antithetical interests and nowhere is that more evident than with prisons.
The entire American prison system is founded on conflicting impulses. Everyone favors public safety and low crime rates. But often the loudest supporters of stiff prison sentences are also the most strident advocates of low taxes. Those positions are, if not mutually exclusive, certainly conflicting.
The courts ruling came in answer to two class-action lawsuits consolidated into a single case. One began as a 1990 challenge to conditions for prisoners with serious mental health issues. The other is a 15-year-old case addressing prisoners medical needs.
The high courts decision also follows other court decisions calling Californias prisons unconstitutionally overcrowded. The states prison system was built to house fewer than 80,000 inmates. When this case was argued it held 142,000.
In the Monday ruling Justice Anthony Kennedy noted some of the results: prisoners held in spaces never meant for inmates, suicidal inmates kept in cages the size of telephone booths, 200 prisoners living in a gymnasium with two or three guards, 54 prisoners sharing a single toilet.
The court couched its ruling in terms of the Eighth Amendments prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. That was probably its only option, given that there is no constitutional provision barring bad decision making. The fact is, though, the situation with Californias prisons is what happens when there is no connection between the demand for services and the taxes needed to pay for them. Other states are just as guilty, whether with prisons, education or other functions. That disconnect puts the public at risk on several levels. Prisons are just a particularly stark example.
The impulse to lock em up and throw away the key is at odds with public safety. Lack of funding multiplies the danger. All but a small handful of the most notorious convicts will at some point be released. What then? What habits or attitudes will they have picked up from conditions such as those in California prisons?
Basic human decency is probably not the answer. A pervasive meanness is more likely, along with a studied indifference to others suffering and a feral mindset.
Is that who we want in our communities? But absent the funds to properly house inmates and offer counseling, mental heath treatment and education that is pretty much what prisoners are being trained to become.
California often leads the nation, in pathologies as well as fashions and fads. This is one example the rest of the nation should learn from and avoid.