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California has been facing a prison crisis for decades and it has been constantly flip-flopping. Back in 2007 Los Angeles Times writer George Skelton summed it up well saying that when it comes to crime both the politicians and the electorate have demanded that California lock up the bad guys and keep em there for a very long time. But they haven’t wanted to pay for it.” At that point in time (February) the prison population was around 173,000 yet the capacity was about 100,000. A federal judge warned the state to start relieving by June or a cap will be ordered. 

It’s not that they were unaware of the situation, for the Little Hoover Commission published a report in 2007 called Solving California’s Corrections Crisis: Time is Running Out. In the Executive Summary the Commission summarized the situation as follows: State prisons are packed beyond capacity. Inmates sleep in classrooms, gyms and hallways. Federal judges control inmate medical care and oversee mental health, use of force, disabilities act compliance, dental care, parolee due process rights and most aspects of the juvenile justice system. Thousands of local jail inmates are let out early every week as a result of overcrowding and court-ordered population caps. The State may soon face the same fate.” 

The state did not act. Predictably, the federal courts intervened and in case of Plata v. Schwarzenegger a three-judge panel in August, 2009 ordered the state to reduce its prison population by about one-fourth or 40,000 prisoners. 

The state did nothing except to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last week the Court ruled that the state must reduce its population by about 30,000 prisoners within two years. The Brown administration has proposed sending about 32,500 inmates to county facilities. Predictably, law enforcement has warned of the dire consequences” in terms of more crime because the county facilities cannot handle the burden of more inmates. Los Angeles County District Attorney said: Citizens will pay a real price as crime victims, as thousands of convicted felons will be on the streets with minimal supervision. Many of these early release’ prisoners will commit crimes which would never have occurred had they remained in custody.” 

Another proposal is to simply repeat what has occurred over and over again throughout the history of the American prison system: when overcrowding occurs, just build more prisons. Indeed, starting with the first prisons — Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and Newgate and Auburn prisons in New York — overcrowding has been a consistent issue. Largely because of what I have called the Field of Dreams Syndrome” — if you build them, they will come. 

California is not alone in its prison crisis. As I wrote this past February, the imprisonment binge that began in the late 1970s has finally come back to haunt the people who were behind it.” Another way of saying the same thing is that history, as usual, has repeated itself. Will we ever learn?