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California Policy Led to Corrections Tragedy

Northwestern Law researcher says state pandered to public’s fear of violent crime

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June 2, 2011 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso
EVANSTON, Ill. --- California’s misguided public policy created the state’s corrections tragedy, which led to severely overcrowded prisons, said Malcolm Young, director of Northwestern University School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Program for Prison Reentry Strategies.

Young responded to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Plata) stating that the conditions in California’s prisons violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 40,000 inmates.

“California politicians drove their state’s prison population from less than 25,000 in 1980 to more than 172,000 in 2008,” said Young. “Ignoring research, objective experience and some of the most informed experts in the country, California’s elected officials pandered to the public’s fear of violent crime: campaigning and voting for some of the most punitive sentencing laws in the nation, including ‘three strikes,’ tolerating punitive parole policies and rejecting almost every meaningful reform effort no matter the political party of origin.”

The court said that California’s prison conditions led to “needless suffering and death.” Reportedly, suicide rates in the state’s prisons have been 80 percent higher than the nationwide average.

“The inhumane, deadly and bankrupting facts documented in the Plata litigation are the result,” Young said. “Plata gives us a hard-fought narrow majority opinion unfortunately offset by dissents that will fuel ideologically driven public policy.”

The public policy that created California’s corrections tragedy is given credence in the dissenting opinions though it is refuted by well-documented experience in at least 10 other states that reduced incarceration and crime, Young said. He cited New York “whose leaders took crime policy in an opposite direction than California’s, reducing its prison population by 19.7 percent from 1999 to 2009 while experiencing a 34.7 percent reduction in violent crime and a 28 percent reduction in property crime.”

Young is the author of several reports analyzing crime policies, the use of incarceration, early release and crime rates in Illinois, California and New York and comparing trends in other states. Reports include “Controlling Corrections Costs in Illinois: Lessons from the Coasts” (Northwestern University School of Law, June 2009) and “Setting the Record Straight: The Truth about ‘Early Release’ from Illinois Prisons” (Northwestern University School of Law, October 2010).