WASHINGTON, DC – The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Schwarzenegger v. Plata, a landmark prison rights case in which a federal court found the unconstitutional conditions of California’s prisons were caused primarily by overcrowding and ordered California to reduce prison overcrowding from over 200% of design capacity down (by about 40,000 people) to 137.5% of capacity within two years. California has conceded that the state’s prison conditions are unconstitutional but has nonetheless asked the Supreme Court to put the states’ right to administer its prisons before the constitutional rights of individuals who are wards of the state.
“One of the primary reasons that the state’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded is that California continues to lock up thousands of people each year for low-level drug possession. There is no basis in evidence or principle to expose people to this dangerous environment simply for the possession of a small amount of illicit substances,” says Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance in Southern California. “California must follow the lead of other states like Texas and New York and stop sending people to state prison for drug possession, which can be handled as a health issue safely, effectively and affordably in the community.”
“The state currently spends $500 million a year to incarcerate 10,000 people for nothing more than personal drug possession,” Dooley-Sammuli continued. “That does not include the unknown number of parolees who have been returned to prison for a few months based on the results of a drug test. This is a terrible waste of scarce resources. Treatment in the community is effective and affordable. Unfortunately, California this year eliminated funding for community-based treatment for drug possession arrestees.”
“People who use drugs do not belong in the state’s cruel and costly prisons simply for that personal use. We urge California to take the logical step of ending incarceration as a response to drug possession, while expanding opportunities for drug treatment in the community,” continued Dooley-Sammuli.