Contributions > Heather Schoenfeld, Kimberly Rhoten, Michael Campbell

Heather Schoenfeld, Kimberly Rhoten, and Michael Campbell
Boston University

Patchwork Protection of Prisoners’ Rights in the United States During
Late Mass Incarceration


Since the turn of the 21st century, advocates and policymakers have been engaged in a struggle over the direction of state penal policy in fitful attempts to reduce the extreme levels of incarceration in the United States. This paper examines the role of the courts, human rights, and procedural justice in these struggles. Most scholarly attention on this question has focused on California where federal court decisions on prison conditions prompted California to pass sweeping reforms that reduced the state’s prison population. Yet, scholarship has demonstrated that prison conditions litigation, and in particular, overcrowding litigation, has historically led to an increase in resources for prisons, not fewer prisoners. Furthermore, except in the case of juvenile defendants, the federal courts have found against plaintiffs that attempted to use the courts to reign in extreme prison sentences. Given these constraints, how have advocates used the courts and to what effect? The data for this paper draws from case studies on the politics of prison reform in three U.S. states. In each state, advocates brought different issues in front of the courts. In New Jersey, the state supreme court required changes to the state’s parole process. In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court struck down the state’s mandatory minimum laws. And in Illinois, the state entered a consent decree to reform mental healthcare within the prisons. By following the translation of these court orders in the political and policy arenas, the analysis reveals novel ways that court decisions can interact with state legislative and administrative policy processes. The paper concludes by discussing the role of procedural justice in the U.S. effort to decarcerate.


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