Crowded Prisons: Calif. Solving Problem If Not Cause

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the conditions in California's overcrowded prisons violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Host Audie Cornish hears more from Ohio State law professor Douglas Berman, who says the popular "tough on crime" mantra helps explain why so many American prisons are over-capacity.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While the FBI is finding new ways to address the needs of crime victims, many state governments are having trouble accommodating the need of prisoners, particularly on the issue on prison overcrowding. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the conditions in California's overcrowded prisons violated the eighth amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. It wasn't just a matter of space but of the inadequate medical and mental health care. The court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by a third, and tomorrow marks the first of three benchmark deadlines. Douglas Berman is a law professor at the Ohio State University and is widely considered a leading expert on sentencing law. He says the popular tough on crime mantra, though a favorite of politicians, helps explain why so many American prisons are over capacity.

DOUGLAS BERMAN: The default is always when in doubt, send away and send away for a longer period of time. That leads to crowded prison facilities, especially as if the willingness to continue to invest in building more and more prisons diminishes.

CORNISH: In order to comply with the court's mandate, California is trying a number of strategies - moving prisoners to county jails, expanding house arrest programs, and, in some cases, letting low-level offenders go free. Again, Douglas Berman:

BERMAN: The consistent strategy is to try to identify those offenders who prevent the least rift and have them be either the ones who first get released or who don't get sent to prison to begin with. And, not surprisingly, this is both controversial conceptually; it's also practically challenging. Because, as some people are inclined to say, in fact, as some Supreme Court justices were inclined to say, you're necessarily going to get that wrong sometimes.

CORNISH: That was Douglas Berman, a professor of law at the Ohio State University.

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