Hanging over the heads of Alabama lawmakers was an even larger problem, one that could create a statewide crisis. The state prison system houses almost 31,000 inmates. Those facilities were designed to house closer to 16,000 prisoners, meaning the Department of Corrections is 190 percent over design capacity.
Over recent decades, California’s overcrowded prison system faced a similar quandary, though on a much grander scale; California has had more than 160,000 prisoners, more than five times Alabama’s inmate population. It took a federal lawsuit to capture the attention of California’s policymakers. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court approved a court plan to force California to decrease its inmate population by 30,000. Almost two years after the court’s ruling, California is still struggling to comply with the order.
The fear here is that Alabama is only a filing in federal court away from the same fate. A lawsuit is filed, claiming, as the California suit did, that 2-to-1 overcrowding amounts to a violation of Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision involving California prisons, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted, “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.”
Equally salient was a part of the dissent written by Justice Samuel Alito, “I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner-release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims.”
Both views are valid. Our basic values are compromised by a system so overcrowded and inhumane. And a mass release of prisoners to reduce overcrowding will almost certainly put more bad guys on the streets.
Of course, Supreme Court justices don’t write the penal code, nor are they responsible for budgeting money to build and staff prisons. That’s the job of states. In Alabama — as in California — state leaders are falling down on the job.
Alabama lawmakers have been masters at adding laws and ever lengthier prison sentences to the books. They’ve done an awful job at budgeting enough money to house all those new prisoners caught up in the state’s “get tough on crime” mindset.
We call this wishful thinking. The Legislature and governor take actions that add to the inmate population; they know that the public can’t get enough of tough-talking politicians. However, the lawmakers act as if the bill for their brand of law-and-order will never come due.
We beg them to stop their wishful thinking and realize the state’s prison overcrowding will be solved either by their responsible actions or by a federal court.