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From the Editor

The cover story this month, on the nuts and bolts of winning a prisoner rights case is by Alphonse Gerhardstein, one of the top civil rights lawyers in the country. His invaluable advice applies equally to pro se prisoner litigants as it does to the best attorneys. There are things that prisoner plaintiffs can do to successfully litigate claims whether they have counsel or not.

One of the most common reasons for prisoners’ lawsuits to be dismissed these days is failure to exhaust administrative remedies. No matter how meritorious the case or how serious the injury, if the case is not first exhausted through the grievance system the federal court routinely dismiss the cases. Prison officials have quickly realized that by failing or refusing to process grievances they can effectively immunize themselves from suit. This requires perseverance on the part of prisoner plaintiffs to utilize the prison or jail grievance system and if they don’t to show why they could not.

The recent ruling by the three judge panel in Plata v. Schwarzenegger ordering the California prison system to reduce its prison population in order to be able to provide constitutionally adequate health care is long overdue and a landmark ruling. The case now goes to the supreme court. PLN has reported extensively on the case and the conditions of confinement in California. In many ways, California exemplifies the problems with the American criminal justice system which is the total lack of legislative and executive branch leadership in effectively carrying out either one of two policies: fully funding the American police state or absent that, reducing reliance on imprisonment as a tool of social control to whatever taxpayers are willing to fund. Instead, we have mass imprisonment on the cheap with overcrowded, violent and disease infested prisons and nowhere in the political lexicon could one discern there is any type of alternative available.

The proposal by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia to create a criminal justice commission has roused a lot of interest among some sectors yet the proposed legislation itself would merely create a commission to study the problems in the criminal justice system, not actually do anything about them. And none of the proposed members of said commission would include current or former prisoners, arguably the ones with the most first hand experience on how well the current system does or does not function.

My office bookshelf groans under the weight of criminal justice commission reports.
Modern ones like the Deukmejian report from California and the Hershberger report from Massachusetts and the Commission on Prison Safety and Violence and older ones going back to the Attica report of 1973. These reports all have one thing in common: their recommendations were soundly ignored by the legislators and government officials and executive branch officials who could have made a difference and changed policies.
Arguably if the Deukmejian reports’ very sensible recommendations had been followed a few years ago the judges in Plata would not have had to order the release of tens of thousands of prisoners and the prison system would not be in receivership. I don’t know if my bookshelf can handle yet another government report on what is wrong with the American prison system.

Rather than yet another report what is needed is a reversal of course on what has led to America’s exponentially expanding prison population of the past 30 years: start shortening sentences. It wasn’t just that more people came to prison, it is that they stayed longer. The federal government led the way and the states followed. This is a simple issue but one that is deemed virtual political suicide for any politician to discuss much less enact. Until that fact is addressed the American prison population will continue to expand.
The second issue that expands the prison population are parole systems that do nothing to help prisoners or protect public safety and with endless technical parole violations that merely churn the prison/parolee population and ensure prison beds remain filled and prisoners cannot reintegrate into society. Over the years I have personally known hundreds if not thousands of prisoners around the country released on parole. I have yet to hear anyone tell me their parole officer helped them find a job, find housing, etc. Far better to have true determinate sentencing where convicts do their time, even if it is a full sentence (discretionary parole release is largely non existent in most jurisdictions that still have parole systems, especially for lifers), and then are dumped out of prison to make their way in life without the albatross of parole or “supervised release” on their necks. The savings to the government from the suddenly thousands of unemployed parole officers would be enormous. But unlikely to happen.

As my overburdened bookshelf and former governor Deukmejian can attest, the problem isn’t a lack of reports and recommendations; rather we lack government officials with the will or interest to implement them. And why should they? No one ever lost their job locking up too many people.

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