In a shocking and far-reaching ruling, the Supreme Court has ordered the state of California to significantly reduce it’s prison inmate population by 30,000 to deal with serious problems with health care and overcrowding. They also ruled that federal judges should retain the power to oversee problematic state prisons.
Like many other prison systems around the nation, California has seen a rapid increase in its population, with many of these new inmates being black and brown. It’s Draconian Three-Strikes laws led to a drain of black and brown men from many families of color. As a result of the laws, the prison population in California grew three times faster than the general population.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that it is “required by the Constitution” that the population be reduced in response to violations of the rights of prison inmates. According to the order, California’s current prison population must drop from 143,000 to 110,000. But even the new number is over 40% higher than the stated capacity of the existing California system.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is from California, joined the four Democrats on the court in the ruling. He is a native of California and has witnessed the overcrowding up close. He even supplied pictures of the conditions in order to make his point.
“The violations have persisted for years. They remain uncorrected,” Kennedy said.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion, stating that this is “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.”
Scalia was joined by the lone black man on the court, Clarence Thomas, along with the other conservative judges in his dissent.
Perhaps our nation has stumbled its way toward some semblance of decency with this Supreme Court ruling. We’ve finally figured out that the cost of incarcerating more citizens than any nation in the world is far outweighing the benefits. Additionally, we are finding that the problem only multiplies itself, as families are destroyed as fathers are being taken out of communities to go to prison camps. We should be ashamed of this era of mass incarceration, for it represents the very worst of what lies in our souls as human beings.
The decision by the Supreme Court should be supplemented by similar work in other states to follow the lead of California. The goal is not to release individuals who are threats to their communities. Instead, it is to ensure that non-violent offenders are guided toward opportunities for rehabilitation. If someone is caught with drugs, they need to receive treatment, not prison time. Additionally, investing in inner city education has a direct impact on the number of youth who turn to a life of crime.
Finally, this decisions must be further supported by efforts to reduce recidivism so that men and women are not tempted to engage in activities that might lead to them going back to prison. By opening doors and providing incentives for formerly incarcerated individuals to get education, job training and employment, we can help them to rebuild their shattered families and raise their children in a healthy and productive environment. Those who fear the release of prison inmates as a threat to public safety should be the first in line to support programs that will divert these individuals away from criminal activity. Additionally, there is no reason why these individuals should not be allowed the right to vote. This is much of what we are fighting for in Never Going Back, our movement against mass incarceration (please join us if you feel compelled to do so).
Most of us think that slavery was abolished with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. But that’s not true. Actually, the 13th Amendment still allows for slavery if you’ve been labeled to be a convicted felon. The problem is that such labeling can be highly arbitrary, as black and brown people are more likely to receive the label than anyone else. A recent YourBlackWorld.com survey found that nearly three-quarters of our African American respondents have a relative who’s done time in prison, so this ruling affects nearly all of us. If we want our families to survive, we must resuscitate the futures of young men and women who make mistakes when they are young.
Last, but not least, I must give credit to Justice Anthony Kennedy, the one Republican who led the way toward prison reform in the state of California. The fact that a white Republican (Kennedy) supported the ruling and the only black justice (Clarence Thomas) did not is a reminder that the color of the oppressor’s face may have little to do with what lies in his heart. Clarence Thomas, in my opinion, has secured his position as the most shameful Supreme Court justice in our nation’s history. I would be embarrassed to be his son.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University. He is also the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and co-founder of Never Going Back, an initiative to fight mass incarceration and recidivsm. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.