IN THE MISTAKEN belief that it was protecting state's rights and refusing to coddle criminals, the House of Representatives voted early this month to exclude prisons and correctional facilities from a bill that would provide additional protection for inmates of state institutions. The House will have an opportunity to undo this damage on Thursday, and we hope it will do just that. The bill, as originally proposed by Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), would authorize the attorney general to bring suit in federal court against a state-operated prison, hospital, nursing home or juvenile facility if he found it were systematically depriving inmates of their civil rights. The authority is needed to overcome judicial rulings that appear to limit the role the Department of Justice can have in such cases. Two courts have ruled it cannot initiate them, and other courts have questioned the scope of its participation.
The need for the federal government to be concerned about these cases and for the Department of Justice to have a principal role in them is clear. The evidence developed in recent years by federal courts in states as diverse as Alabama and New York demonstrates that inmates in many institutions are systematically abused and that nothing is done about it until the courts intervene. The Justice Department has been involved in about 40 of these cases, often at the request of the courts. That's because it can mount a broader investigation into the general pratices of an institution than can an individual inmate or a single lawyer. By permitting the department to initiate cases, as well as join them later, Congress would not be opening new ways for Washington to harrass states. It would simply be helping the department use it s resources - and the time of te courts - more efficiently by picking its cases rather than piggybacking on whatever some individual inmate decides to do. Indeed, Mr. Kastenmeier's bill would be more considerate of states' rights thatn the present system. It would require the attorney general to give states a warning and time to correct deficiences before filing suit. An inmate doesn't have to give any warning.
The sentiment in the House when this bill was first debated seemed to be that federal intervention may be needed to protect the rights of juveniles and physically or mentally ill adults - but not the rights of adult criminals. The argument was that the latter know their rights and can protect themselves. The House agreed, voting 227 to 132 to delete from the bill the attorney general's power to sue prisons. In reconsidering that question, the House should note the specious nature of that argument. As a clear, convicts may know more about their rights than other inmates, but they have been remarkably unsuccessful in protecting them. Seldom, if ever, has any convict won major changes in prison administration without outside help. And that help usually comes from the Justice Department.
The fact is that cases of this kind are so complex that they require more money and legal resources than any inmate of any institution is likely to have. But convicts, just like other inmates, do have rights. And their claim on federal help in enforcing those rights is just as valid as the claim of those confined in hospitals and other institutions.