On Monday, the Supreme Court ordered the state of California to reduce its prisoner population because of severe overcrowding. In a 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy explained that the state’s failure to meet constitutional requirements has caused “needless suffering and death.” The Brown v. Plata decision is published here by the Los Angeles Times.

There has been a lot of fear-based reporting of this story, but Governor Brown is not immediately ordering the release of 40,000 violent offenders. How did we get here? A prison system built to hold 80,000 inmates now houses 143,335. Some say that we need to build more prisons. Others argue that the federal government should take over the detention of illegal immigrants so that the state prison system is not burdened with undocumented offenders. Some argue that we need to change the sentencing guidelines to prevent the incarceration of nonviolent offenders who could benefit from drug courts or rehabilitation programs on supervised release. Others say California should change the parole requirements as other states have done. Some argue that the county jail system could house state inmates to relieve overcrowding in prisons. And given the state’s severe budget crisis, the cost of each proposal is going to be heavily scrutinized. The LA Times reports that Governor Brown’s current proposal to transfer some inmates to county jails will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and depends on tax hikes. [If you are interested in learning more about California Corrections, follow this link to a policy brief by Joan Petersilia.]

The tension, of course, is between public safety and the human rights of prisoners. For too long we have neglected the human rights of prisoners. Justice Kennedy writes:

“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.”

The U.S. Bishops’ 2000 document, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration, provides helpful insight as well. Drawing on the Catechism, RRR argues that imprisonment of criminals has a three-fold purpose: (1) preservation and protection of the common good; (2) restoration of public order; (3) restoration of the offender. (CCC, nos. 2265-2267). With regard to the current broken system, the bishops offer concrete suggestions, including:

“We call upon government to redirect the vast amount of public resources away from building more and more prisons and toward better and more effective programs aimed at crime prevention, rehabilitation, education efforts, substance abuse treatment, and programs of probation, parole, and reintegration.

Renewed emphasis should be placed on parole and probation systems as alternatives to incarceration, especially for non-violent offenders. Freeing up prison construction money to bolster these systems should be a top priority.”

Given the clear violations of human dignity in the California prison system (for example, a “needless” inmate death every week due to deficient medical care), significant reforms are necessary. But Catholics should be skeptical of any solution that simply involves building more prisons.