Getting the attention of the average American isn’t easy but keeping it for more than 10 seconds requires real skill. Hence the popularity of Twitter, with it’s 140-character limitation. Given the public’s short attention span, it’s no wonder juicy celebrity gossip and salacious headlines have come to dominate the “news”.
So it was surprising when California’s prison system caught the attention of the public recently – especially since there hasn’t been an arrest of a major celebrity in a while.
According to Google, the trending keywords “California Prisons” got a significant uptick and sustained it for about six months.
That trend started sometime during the month of May when the media put out more than their usual share of reports on the status of California’s overcrowded prisons, a system that has been at almost 200% over capacity for several years. The sudden increase in media attention was mostly due to the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Plata, requiring the state of California to reduce its prison rolls.
According to the Court, California’s prisons are so overcrowded they constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Speaking for the majority, Justice Kennedy wrote, “In addition to overcrowding the failure of California’s prisons to provide adequate medical and mental health care may be ascribed to chronic and worsening budget shortfalls, a lack of political will in favor of reform, inadequate facilities, and systemic administrative failures.”
After the California legislation came up with a strategy for complying with the court – dubbed the Realignment plan — information forums were held throughout the state, mostly by non-profits and community-based organizations to shed light on how the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation planned to handle what many believed was going to be a massive prisoner release effort.
But, turns out California’s Realignment Plan probably won’t result in any early releases. In fact, the mandate to reduce the number of prisoners under the State’s cognizance will most likely translate into shifting a portion of the state prison population from California’s existing state facilities to California’s county jails and out-of state penal institutions — or California could simply build more prisons. The result? Just a really expensive game of musical chairs.
Little evidence suggests that the governor, the legislators or the people of California, for that matter, viewed the landmark Supreme Court decision as a wakeup call. Yes, the United States Supreme Court found that California’s prisons had reached a level of overcrowdedness that was causing unnecessary harm and even death, but the vast majority of Californians only took interest when they thought there was a chance that a bunch of criminals would be released into local communities without completely serving out their sentences.
Now that the date for the initial release has come and gone – and the offenders are still behind bars — the public’s interest has come and gone. Just take a quick look at Google trending keywords. Over the past 12-month period, the keywords “California prions” started peaking in May 2011. Then searches for this phrase dropped in August, and surged again during October and November, correlating with these key dates: In May 2011 the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Plata, during the summer the 58 Counties in California submitted transition plans for how they’d deal with the prisoners, and finally in October, the first transition began. Now we’re back to business as usual.
But the number of people incarcerated in the United States and particularly in California is anything but usual. It is staggering. One writer recently described the prison population explosion as being “unexampled in human history” – yet, there seems to be no end to its continued growth. And now we see that the recent Supreme Court mandate requiring California to reduce it’s prison rolls won’t make a bit of difference.
The average Californian seems to think this issue is a simple matter, especially if they’ve never given the topic more than a cursory glance. But anyone who has done just a little bit of research quickly realizes that there is something bizarre and possibly sinister going on in our nation’s criminal justice system.
Consider that as recently as 30 years ago, the United States incarcerated its citizens at roughly the same rate as other Western countries. In fact, throughout our history, the United States has had a relatively unremarkable level of incarceration. Then suddenly, about 30 years ago, something changed.
It’s as if an inordinate chunk of the American population, who had pretty much obeyed the law for 200 years, suddenly went hog wild.
Public perception is that high crime rates or a disproportionately lawless element within our population led to our unprecedented prison expansion.
But the facts don’t bear this out – people in the U.S. are no more likely to engage in criminal activity than people in other countries.
In fact, according to the Department of Justice, crime rates in the United States have continually declined in recent years or have fluctuated over the 30 years while the U.S. prison population exploded.
In less than 30 years, the prison population in the United States quintupled from 300,000 to 2,300,000. The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the people in prison in the entire world are in U.S. Prisons.
So, what gives?
If you really want to understand this unprecedented growth phenomenon, it’ll take more than simply reading this article so I’ve also listed several books and other publications at the bottom of this piece that are truly illuminating. Before scrolling down to that list, here are some interesting things to consider:
- War on Drugs – This is the single most contributing factor to prison expansion – 2/3 of the rise is do to the war on drugs
- Non-serious Incarcerations – The increase is not because of kingpins or violent offenders, most arrestees have no history of violence or significant selling history – marijuana possession and sale represent 80% of the increase.
- Plea Bargains – 95% of criminal cases don’t ever get to trial, this means no presentation of witnesses, no cross-examinations, no opening statements, no one investigates to be sure the defendant is actually guilty — not the D.A. and not the court appointed counsel
- Prison-Based Gerrymandering – Prisoners are counted as residents of the particular district where they are incarcerated increasing the district’s population with non-voters artificially inflating the political representation in districts with prisons at the expense of voters in all other districts without prisons. Often compared to the 3/5 compromise because of the disproportionate percentage of African-American inmates.
One of the major contributing factors that keep this system growing is public unawareness. Speaking of the invisibility of our prison communities, noted professor and author of The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge Studies in Criminology), Marie Gottschalk wrote:
“In the nineteenth century, prisons opened their doors to the public and were popular destinations for gawking domestic and foreign tourists. In the 1960s and early 1970s, prison memoirs and accounts of life behind bars regularly turned up on best-seller lists. Today, however, the U.S. penal system is distinctive not only because of its huge size, but also because of its relative invisibility.”
The invisibility she speaks of is evident by the lack of awareness and frankly, concern or outrage, expressed in California where we have 140,000 inmates in our state prisons and are paying in excess of $47,000 per year, per prisoner! Two-thirds of the low-level offenders would arguably not be serving time at all had we not instituted the war on drugs. Oh and by the way, LA is considering building yet another jail to the tune of $1.4 billion dollars to house the non-violent, non-serious offenders being realigned by the state. When are we going to say, “enough is enough”.
For books and articles on this topic, look below — I’ve included links to several excellent articles and books that should be required reading for every American. Thanks for reading. Please share this article on Facebook or Twitter.
The High Budgetary Costs of Prison — The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor by John Nichols — ALEC Exposed by John Nichols — American Hell — The Real Cost of Prisons — Mandatory Minimum Sentences, a Judges Perspective — More on Prisons