Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Beyond the Rush to Incarcerate

Harold Dean Trulear


June 3, 2011
by Harold Dean Trulear

On May 23, the United States Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 margin to uphold a lower court decision requiring the state of California to reduce its prison population by up to 46,000 inmates due to overcrowding conditions which violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.  The decision in Brown vs. Plata comes twenty years after the filing of the initial class action lawsuit, and nearly a decade after California conceded that its overcrowding conditions actually were in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  But the legal battle to address the situation reflects the politicization of our prison system and the struggle to come to an American consensus around how we respond to criminal behavior in the press for public safety.

Much of the arguments which led to the ruling, as well as popular responses to the proceedings, reflect existing political fault lines that have been forming at least since the calls for “law and order” in the 1968 presidential campaign which intensified during the 1980’s “War on Drugs.”  Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, argues that the lines were drawn even earlier by racial politics. Either way, a disturbingly vindictive consensus has emerged in our nation, which Christian ethicist T. Richard Snyder has called “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Punishment,” where, even among the faithful, the desire for revenge against criminals is as natural as “the air we breathe.”  Cutting through these cultural paradigms to evaluate the court’s decision requires people of faith to practice discernment.

First, our rush to incarcerate has given the United States the highest prison population in the world, both in real numbers and in percentage of citizens incarcerated. There is absolutely no correlation, however, between crime rates and incarceration rates. In the past forty years, the prison rate—with the exception of a few periods of leveling off—continued to increase dramatically whether the crime rate was rising or decreasing. 

Second, because of our rush to incarcerate, our concern for prison and jail conditions hovers between indifference and vindictiveness, with efforts to redress those conditions  considered   “soft on crime.”  However, with the California case in full view, Christians committed to the doctrine of the imago Dei must wonder about the treatment of inmates whose living conditions include sitting in feces in holding cells due to overcrowding.

One amicus brief was filed by a broad religious coalition which included the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, and Prison Fellowship.  Citing their common religious goal to “ameliorate unnecessary human suffering, especially among the marginalized,” these groups stated firmly that “sick prisoners get sicker…Inmates with mental illness are confined in cages while awaiting appropriate beds [and] the suicide rate is nearly twice the national average for prisons.”

The organizations went on to cite their commitment to “eliminate the interference with religious freedom that extreme overcrowding causes.” Overcrowding leads to increased lockdowns which restrict inmate access to religious services. Additionally, available space used for housing the overpopulation restricts area available for religious services, a denial of the inmates’ right to religious freedom.

Third, the public safety issues involved must be clarified.  University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill noted that the ruling does not require California to release 46,000 inmates, rather to reduce its prison population.  “The state has three options,” continues Ifill, an active Methodist, which include “transfers to county jails” and other facilities outside the state system, building new prisons, and releasing (or creating diversionary alternatives for)  “non-violent offenders, such as technical parole violators.”  It is the state’s responsibility to develop appropriate means to reduction.

Finally, efforts to properly engage persons who do return to society must be strengthened at the grass roots level. While federal appropriations support large scale efforts around employment and  mentoring for returning inmates (and even much of this is threatened in proposed budget cuts), communities themselves, especially those to which men and women return, must find the resources and will to support the process of reintegration.

Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project at the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation and Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”