Will Alabama Be Sued Over Prison Overcrowding?
That’s the dire prediction made in this editorial from the Birmingham News:
Actually, it’s surprising someone hasn’t sued already. We’ve known since May the U.S. Supreme Court’s dim view of California’s overcrowded prisons. The high court ordered California to get rid of 30,000 of the prison system’s 140,000 inmates after inmates’ lawsuits contended the overcrowding violated their rights and kept them from getting needed medical care and other services.
Alabama’s prisons are even more jam-packed than California’s, with our state’s 30,970 inmates exceeding the prisons’ designed capacity by 190 percent, according to state data. California’s prisons were at 175 percent capacity at the time of the Supreme Court ruling. While Alabama’s prison conditions aren’t nearly as bad as California’s, Lauderdale Circuit Court Judge Mike Jones expressed the obvious concern.
“California’s prisons are not as overcrowded as Alabama’s are right now,” Jones told the TimesDaily of Florence in a story published Tuesday in The Birmingham News. “I’m afraid that all it’s going to take is for someone to take some of the California lawsuits and change the names of the defendants to Alabama officials instead of California officials and a group of federal judges is going to order that Alabama reduce a bunch of prisoners to reduce overcrowding.”
The California case referred to is, of course, Brown v. Plata, last year’s Supreme Court decision upholding a federal court order requiring the Golden State to reduce its prison population. At the time, for all its importance as a moral statement, I didn’t think Plata would have much practical effect for other states since no other state has prisons as overcrowded as California’s — no other state, that is, except for Alabama. So, it’s not surprising to me that officials there are worried.
I don’t think Alabama has as much to fear from federal judges as this editorial implies. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 was passed specifically to weaken federal judicial oversight of state prison systems. It prohibits federal judges from issuing what it calls “prisoner release orders” — defined as any order that would have the effect of reducing the state prison population — except as a very last resort. California got to that stage only after failing to fix its overcrowding crisis through 20+ years of litigation, and it’s clear that the Supreme Court only upheld the Plata order because the situation was so unique and had been dragging on for so long. Large-scale institutional reform litigation of this type is highly fact-driven, and it takes years. In sum, there’s no reason to think that an Alabama lawsuit would turn out the same as the California litigation did; and even if it did come to a federal release order, that could be decades down the road.
Still, I think Alabama officials are right to think that lawsuits might be filed in the near future — not least because the South has lots of crusading prisoners’ rights attorneys and organizations with plenty of experience with this kind of thing — even if any such lawsuits wouldn’t be resolved any time soon. Last year Alabama legislators considered a slew of criminal justice reforms that didn’t wind up going anywhere; maybe the specter of litigation is what it will take to push these reforms through. It’s hard to disagree with the editorial’s policy recommendations:
State government shouldn’t wait on a federal court to order inmates’ release because of a California-style lawsuit. The Department of Corrections and the Legislature need to do everything they can to ease the inmate crunch by finding ways to get nonviolent offenders out of prisons and into alternative programs such as community corrections, and by doing a better job preparing the inmates it releases to become responsible, productive citizens instead of continuing lives of crime and returning to prison.