Yesterday, SCOTUS ruled in Brown v. Plata that California must reduce its prison population by over 30,000 prisoners. Why? Because their system was so severely overcrowded that the medical neglect prisoners were facing amounted to a violation of their 8th Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. That’s some mightily deficient medical care.
California has been facing a crisis in its prison system for decades, as the sentencing reforms that came as a result of the War on Drugs and other initiatives have steered an ever-increasing segment of the populace into prison. Arguably most impactful in this regard is California’s “Three Strikes” laws, which mandate a life sentence for anyone convicted of a third felony charge, whether that charge be for murder or larceny, rape or possession of a controlled substance. California’s prison population has grown dramatically under this legislation.
“Three Strikes” laws were initially devised in, and then promoted by members of, a conservative legislation front group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is a nonprofit group that brings the leaders of the biggest companies in the country together with state legislators in an open forum where model legislation is developed. These state legislators then return with model legislation in hand to their state Assemblies, often to see the bills passed. This really shouldn’t be legal, because nonprofits aren’t supposed to develop model legislation, but since nearly 2/3 of state Republican legislators are members, a blind eye is conveniently turned to this fact.
ALEC is essentially a pay-to-play organization; the more a company pays in membership fees, conference fees, etc., the more influence they can expect to have on the model legislation that’s developed. During the 90’s, CCA paid more than $20,000 per year for a seat on the steering committee of ALEC’s Criminal Justice taskforce, in which the 3-strikes law was developed.
To the joy of hard-line criminal justice advocates everywhere, 3-strikes laws passed with much fanfare in California and elsewhere, though they have had the largest direct impact on a prison population in the Golden State. CCA had direct influence over the drafting, and final approval of the model, of this law. CCA also began operations in California in the 90s, and have since developed a strong relationship with the state government through campaign donations and lobbying. Such a strong relationship in fact that, as California’s population spiraled out of control, CCA increased their contract with the state by more than 3,000%, with practically no public bidding process. So CCA pretty much wrote the law that has had the single largest impact on California’s growing prison population. The very same law they have greatly benefited from as their market share in the state increased 30-fold.
New/Old Governor Jerry Brown has proposed to redistribute many of the state’s prisoners to county jails, primarily nonviolent ones. But this is not a solution; all it does is shift the onus of California’s over-reliance on incarceration to smaller jurisdictions and excuse the state of its responsibility to be accountable for the people it has locked up. Other proposals include the option of shipping prisoners to private facilities in other states, or building even more private prisons. These aren’t solutions either.
The right thing to do would be to reverse 3-strikes, provide for compassionate release of older prisoners with major health problems, and reform technical parole violations. Essentially, begin to wean California off its addiction to incarceration as a primary means of punishment/social control. But I guess that would be just too logical.