In May, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state of California must release tens of thousands of prisoners from its highly overcrowded prison system, where conditions have deteriorated so drastically as to be “cruel and unusual”. Unsurprisingly, this decision has been met with much criticism, from dissenting justices to law enforcement to California residents, who claim the release of prisoners will prove dangerous and lead to increased crime. In the first place, these fears are exaggerated: those released would be low-level offenders serving short sentences, not serious offenders (it is worth noting that in a recent, unrelated incident, a computer glitch allowed 450 high risk offenders to be released – it seems this may be a more legitimate cause for fear). But the reactions to this ruling highlight a far deeper problem.
California, a state that spends more on its prison system than its higher education institutions, has long struggled with detention issues. It is not the only state to face such problems. Despite this history, California and the US in general have proven remarkably incapable of or unwilling to undertake meaningful reform. For decades, justice in the US has been dominated by a punitive turn, which emphasizes punishment and ignores rehabilitation of wrong-doers; to the detriment of all. Public opinion has been formed to view criminals as an underclass, an inherently dangerous ‘other’ against which upstanding Americans must literally wage war (President Kennedy first declared the “war on crime”, and this mantra has since been taken up by each following president). Through this exclusion, the ‘criminal identity’ is solidified, creating a cycle of crime, persecution, and further exclusion that weakens society as a whole.
This entire discourse must be addressed in order to effect real change in the prison system. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling is significant because it suggests the tiniest shift in the prevailing opinion. However, the state of California has moved quickly to undermine this: Governor Brown has already introduced a plan to transfer low level offenders to county jails and other (often privately owned) facilities, expressing the hope that the state would not have to release anyone at all. This plan would allow the punitive discourse to continue unchallenged, ignoring options for rehabilitation and reintegration of criminals that could allow for more effective justice and a stronger society.