Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Criminologists to SCOTUS: California Can Safely Reduce Its Prison Population

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As Plata v. Schwarzenegger‘s day before SCOTUS draws nearer, a coterie of criminologists and law professors have filed a Brandeis brief in the prisoners’ favor (PDF link from NYU’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law). Basically, the brief argues that California can reduce its prison population without hurting public safety — indeed, that reducing the prison population would likely improve public safety — and, thus, that the Court should leave in place the population reduction order of the three-judge district court panel. The brief is well worth reading in full, but here are some highlights:

All available empirical evidence indicates that prison populations can be reduced without causing an increase in crime rates. While incarceration can serve to incapacitate, deter, and rehabilitate some portion of the prisoner population, its overall effect on crime rates is small compared to other legal and social factors. As a result, states that have similar incarceration rates often have dissimilar crime rates. …

In addition, and as the district court recognized, there is evidence that high incarceration rates and long sentences, particularly combined with overcrowded prisons, actually can increase crime rather than avert it. There are two key ways in which this happens: First, the “criminogenic” nature of prisons can cultivate violence and criminality in offenders who might otherwise not have recidivated. The more people are subjected to this environment, the more widespread these effects will be. And the effects themselves become more severe as prisons become more crowded. Second, the disproportionate impact of high incarceration rates on particular communities can produce the kind of social consequences that lead to more crime.

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  1. […] on the case here via SCOTUSblog, and at my earlier posts here (rounding up background info) and here (noting a criminologists’ amicus brief in support of the prisoners). For those of us not in […]

  2. […] crime.” There’s certainly a lot to say there, but as I’ve mentioned before, criminologists don’t agree with Alito, and in any event, I found that entire line of questioning to be fairly uninteresting, […]

  3. […] be that radical of a step: California’s already under a federal court order to do so, and there are viable plans out there for gradually reducing the prison population without sacrificing public safety — mainly by […]


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