Saturday, February 21, 2009

Justice by disaster

A Reuters news agency story dated February 10, 2009 reports that Federal judges have tentatively ordered the release of up to one-third the prison population is the state of California. If implemented, this could result in the release of as many as 57,000 prisoners. The immediate reason for the possible release is that California's prisons are dangerously overcrowded; moreover, the severe budget crisis that has emerged in the early months of this year has led to doubts as to whether the state can continue to pay the high cost of imprisoning approximately 170,000 inmates.

Part of the reason for the severe overcrowding in California's prisons is the policy of giving very long sentences—often life sentences—to repeat offenders. Although some prisons in California have educational and rehabilitational programs for inmates, the number of inmates seeking such programs far exceeds the numbers who can be accommodated. As a result many inmates receive little or no rehabilitative help while in prison. Once released, many prisoners lack the resources to become re-established with honest gainful employment on the outside. As a result California has the highest recidivism rate in the United States; according to a California government fact sheet, 70% of men and 40% of women return to prison after being released. When the state lacks the policy to ensure that all inmates have an opportunity for education or job training, it is almost inevitable to released prisoners will commit further crimes; when the state has a policy of giving very long sentences to repeat offenders, the prisons are sure to become overcrowded and expensive. The entire system is in serious need of reform.

While the situation is worst in California, the difference from other states is only a matter of degree. The United States as a whole leads the world in the percentage of its citizens who are in prison. I have written about this before. It is not only California but all the other states, and indeed the federal government, that must take a serious look at its policies in imprisoning those who have broken laws.

There is no doubt that the economic crisis the world is facing will have terrible consequences for many people—it is probably no exaggeration to say that nearly everyone alive will suffer at least some negative consequences. But not all the consequences of the economic disaster will be bad; some will lead, in odd and unexpected ways, to improvements in human society. Wasteful habits of producing and consuming goods and services are likely to be revised, perhaps helping to heal some of the deep wounds the human race has inflicted on the planet's ecological systems. Another unexpected consequence of the economic downturn could be a return to a more sane and humane set of policies of justice. The overcrowding of California's prisons, and those in most other states, is surely an injustice. The release of prisoners for whatever reason is a correction, even if an unintended correction, to that injustice. And for that we can all rejoice.