Yesterday, a federal court ruled that California's prison health care system is not only dangerous but also unconstitutional, and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by nearly a third, to 137.5 percent of capacity. Budget struggles had already pushed the state to cut costs by releasing inmates, and some commentators believe the recession will bring prison reform to other states.

The news in California reignited a decades-long debate between law-and-order conservatives and liberals who say the nation's overcrowded prison systems are cruel and unsustainable. Liberals are hopeful that the economic crisis may usher in prison reforms they have been pushing for years.

This is how they think the economic crisis changed the tide, and what it could mean for the rest of us:

Releasing Prisoners Is the Right Thing

  • Reform Is Long Overdue, said Kevin Drum At Mother Jones:"A couple of weeks ago I described California as "a penal colony with a nice coastline." The coastline is still nice, but a three-judge panel has finally ordered the state to get off its ass and do something about our wretched and overflowing prison system"
  • Fiscal and Moral Good Sense, says an editorial in the San Fransisco Chronicle. "When it comes to California's broken prison system, the budget crisis may have finally left us with no option other than to do the right thing,"
  • The State Budget Needs It, says Mark Kleiman of the Reality-Based Community says "the secret to spending less on prison is having fewer people in prison."
  • Freeing Non-Violent Prisoners Is a Gimme, says Pat Nolan at the Huffington Post. "Several other states have shown that they can save hundreds of millions by reserving costly prison beds for truly dangerous criminals, while punishing low-risk offenders in community facilities."
  • Schools Will Benefit, says the San Fransisco Chronicle. "Judges have called our system unconstitutional and ordered us to change it, public education officials have decried the diversion of funds for years - and yet it took an unprecedented financial crisis to get Sacramento to even consider it."
Bad News for Public Safety
  • An Obvious Danger, says Patterico. "Sure, save money by excusing parole violations. Just understand that some people will die as a result."
A National Opportunity
  • A Chance to Rethink Prisons, says Lance Steagall said at Firedoglake. "One of the silver linings in this economic crisis: a long-overdue reevaluation of incarceration and corrections-programs in the US is taking place."
  • States Could Swap Prisoners, says Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm in a letter to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: "I am certain Michigan can provide a safe and secure environment for prisoners and help prepare them for a return to California and a crime free lifestyle. I believe a partnership on this issue could have national implications for cross-state collaboration."