Another 5-4 decision. Another scathing Scalia dissent. The Supreme Court, in Brown v. Plata, upheld the injunction, that overcrowding in California’s prison system reached the level of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment, and ordered it remedied within two years.
Hooray? Well, yes, better than Scalia’s answer:
There comes before us, now and then, a case whose proper outcome is so clearly indicated by tradition and common sense, that its decision ought to shape the law, rather than vice versa. One would think that, before allowing the decree of a federal district court to release 46,000 convicted felons, this Court would bend every effort to read the law in such a way as to avoid that outrageous result. Today, quite to the contrary, the Court disregards stringently drawn provisions of the governing statute, and traditional constitutional limitations upon the power of a federal judge, in order to uphold the absurd.
While the number, 46,000, may be a bit hyperbolic, Nino gets in touch with his activist side in recognizing that, hey, these are criminals. You can’t let criminals out of prison. Are you nuts?
But before we pat ourselves on the back and make toasts to the best legal system on earth, let’s consider some other numbers.
The special court’s decision, issued in 2009, addressed two consolidated class-action suits, one filed in 1990, the other in 2001. In 2006, Arnold Schwarzenegger, then governor, said conditions in the state’s prisons amounted to a state of emergency.
The majority seemed persuaded that the passage of time required the courts to act.
The Supreme Court’s decision derives from two actions, the older of which was commenced in 1990. If it was a person, it would have come of age to celebrate the win with a stiff bourbon. Here’s a nice photo, from Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion of how mentally ill inmates were housed awaiting the opening of a bed:
Somebody, some person, was made to live in this cage the size of a telephone booth for lack of anyplace else to put him. In 1990. Twenty one years ago.
It’s not as though California was unaware that it had a problem, but having created the problem by grabbing hold of every half-baked idea of imposing mandatory sentencing and three strikes and ever-longer, stiffer, harsher sentences, every politically beneficial tough-on-crime mindless knee-jerk opportunity to throw people in prison, it was stuck with the product of its own invention.
That some very large number of people, most of whom are indeed criminals, will be unceremoniously freed over the next couple of years, is a scary proposition. Not nearly as scary as Justices Scalia and Alito suggest, since under a slightly more thoughtful regime, they wouldn’t be in prison to begin with, or at least would have been out already, having completed sentences that a rational system would have thought appropriate. The justices forget that the California prison system didn’t get overcrowded by accident, or because Californians are just more criminal than the rest of us.
But it took 21 years to reach this point, where a final decision has been made. And it will still take another two to remedy the problem, assuming it actually happens. After all, if California somehow fails to reduce its prison population sufficiently to satisfy the injunction, what exactly will be happen? It’s not like the governor will be held in contempt and made to live in a caged phone booth.
If, as the majority concluded, the overcrowding of California’s prison amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, then those in the system have suffered it for decades. Decades! Our legal system is incapable of stopping cruel and usual punishment for decades.
If ever a case demonstrated the impotence of a legal system to right itself, to fix a problem, to address a failure of epic proportions, this is it. Among our many platitudes designed to rationalize any situation, there is “justice delayed is justice denied.” Tell all the inmates in the system between 1990 and, well, two years from now, how the system has vindicated their rights.
To blame crazy politics for creating this situation over decades, layering one tough-on-crime initiative over another until the prisons are bursting at the seams, is easy. What a bunch of pandering fools, no one looking at the consequences because they will come to pass tomorrow, and the politicians are only interested in getting elected today. So the bill has finally come due.
We cannot forget that California took 21 years to pay the bill. We ought to get some interest on this past due debt, but we won’t. It will be surprising if they pay the bill at all. And this is the best legal system ever.