Prison-population caps under fire Justice Dept. 'receptive' to ending limits set by courts


WASHINGTON -- Outlining a major policy shift, Attorney General William P. Barr said yesterday that the Department of Justice will be "receptive" to states' efforts to remove court-ordered population caps at overcrowded prisons.

Mr. Barr, in a hard-line speech to the California District Attorneys Association in Palm Springs, Calif., said that many federal judges went too far in the 1970s and 1980s in deciding what the Constitution requires to remedy purported "cruel and unusual punishment" in prisons.

"If we want to reduce violent crime, we must press ahead unrelentingly with the policy of incapacitating violent criminals through incarceration," Mr. Barr said. "The choice is clear: More prison space or more crime."

The speech, a copy of which was made available here, comes as President Bush has seen his popularity fall as Democratic opponents question his ability to solve domestic problems, including crime.

Political critics note that even as prison populations set records, the nation's crime rate continues to rise.

Mr. Barr's policy shift drew immediate criticism from Elizabeth Alexander, the associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national prison project, which litigates on behalf of prisoners' rights.

"He is wrong about the law, but more importantly he's wrong on the humanity of it," she said.

In the past, the Department of Justice has frequently sided with inmates in prison-condition cases.

The department's civil rights division has taken part in obtaining consent decrees to improve prison conditions in Texas, California, Michigan, Guam, the Virgin Islands and three local jails, Assistant Attorney General John R. Dunne said.

The department's role has been even greater because of the threat that the federal government would enter the case if state authorities refused to improve conditions, Mr. Dunne said.

But Mr. Barr said the department will now be more sympathetic to state attempts to lift population caps not essential to remedy constitutional violations.

He said that the federal courts had gone too far in ruling on "the particulars of prisoners' diets, exercise, visitation rights and health care."

"Most burdensome of all, these decrees imposed limitations or caps on the population of state prisons," Mr. Barr said, adding that the restrictions in some cases "have wrought havoc with the state's efforts to get criminals off the street."

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