The Beginning of the End?

03/19/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Is this the beginning of the end? These are troubling times, indeed. But the end being heralded herein is not the "end of days." Nor the end of capitalism as we know it. And not even is it the premature end of the Obama honeymoon. The beginning of the end I am talking about -- hoping for -- is the end of the growth of the US prison population. Is that too much to hope for?

Not according to a three-judge panel in California, which, on February 9, after hearing expert testimony since November, formally ordered California to reduce its prison population by up to a third. Running at just under double capacity for the last decade, and suffocating on the costs of doing so, the judges ruled that California has been unable to meet the health and mental care needs of its whopping 157,000 inmates.

And who are the prisoners this decision helps? Are they the hardened gangbangers we have heard so much about? When it comes to health care, yes. It's a right for all prisoners. But the release plan is meant to assist those that might be better off on the outside than inside the walls. Are they the mentally ill that might -- a generation ago -- have received treatment rather than the punishment of incarceration? Yes, many of them. Are they the aging and/or reformed inmates who in another day in America might have been granted parole at some point, even if they did have a violent past? I hope so. Redemption has a place in our prison system and it has been missing for too long.

So many things have gone wrong in the last 30+ years with American prisons, it's hard to say who stands to gain most from the court's decision. The typical narrative about releasing prisoners, which is that the public stands to lose as prisoners gain, doesn't hold in this case. Like easy credit, society binged on incarceration and now the bill is due. It'll be a relief to pay less as the prison population drops. Beyond the bottomline, punishments have become so draconian that -- more than anything -- this decision may symbolize that we're finally simply stepping back from the societal precipice of cruelty. Like the rescinding of torture as a tool in the arsenal of our democracy, the prison abuses of overcrowding and failure to care for prison wards may be on their way to becoming a thing of the past.

In the absence of executives or legislatures who would follow the law of the land with respect to prisoners, the court has stepped in to check their wanton abuse. In the words of Dr. James Gilligan, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU, author of the seminal work, Violence, and an expert witness in the California trial:

It's an historic decision, which potentially could be the first step towards reversing two tragic mistakes our society has been making over the past 35 to 50 years: transferring the mentally ill from mental hospitals to prisons, so that the prisons have become the de facto mental health care system in this country; and increasing the imprisonment rate seven-fold since the mid-1970s, so that we now have the largest proportion of our population in prison (including both those who are mentally ill and those who are not) of any country in the world, including 'police states' such as China, Russia, Iran, Syria, etc.

Far from honeymoon times in America, decisions like this one and President Obama's order on torture mark the beginning of the end of the bad old days. Or perhaps, I like to imagine, they represent a new dawn of rights, civility and justice.

Impediments still remain. Because California plans to appeal the decision, the US Supreme Court will probably rule on this case. Pray they allow the California court's decision to stand.