When The Chickens Come Home To Roost: Brown v. Plata

…some of us squeal like stuck pigs.  Running with that farm metaphor a little.

The Supremes affirmed a lower court decision ordering a bunch of prisoners released due to overcrowding in California.  Thousands of them, I guess.  In their pointed dissents, Nino Scalia and Sam Alito are evidently very upset.

How inadvertently revealing those opinions are.  Here’s Scalia:

“It is also worth noting the peculiarity that the vast majority of inmates most generously rewarded by the release order – the 46,000 whose incarceration will be ended – do not form part of any aggrieved class even under the Court’s expansive notion of a constitutional violation.  Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”

Scalia later alludes to some mitigating reasoning in the majority opinion that would “…achieve the benefit of a marginal reduction in the inevitable murders, rapes and robberies to be committed by the released inmates.”

“Inevitable”, Nino?  Really?  Do you have so little faith in the “corrections” systems?

Such fleeting rhetorical passages make Nino’s true thoughts about prisoners sufficiently clear:  they are subhuman, muscle bound monsters to be caged for life, a threat to decent people everywhere, decent people being those who are not imprisoned, a dwindling set in the prison nation Scalia’s 30 years on the Supreme Court bench have helped foster.

One suspects that only Harvard Law graduates at the top of their class would make the cut into the ranks of the decent if Nino had his druthers.

Of course, Nino makes a plausible intellectual case for his position – he’s no dummy after all – along these lines:  courts are ill-equipped to administer institutions like prisons and schools through the issuing of injunctions.

So true.  And I like how schools and prisons are lumped together.

But then we come to Alito’s dissent, which inadvertently answers this problem, in a way at least.  Alito is more frank about the sheer terror of releasing 46,000 criminals – criminals!!! – and shares Nino’s concern about courts micro-managing prisons.  But he also argues that any injunction should be less radical than a release order in addressing the eighth amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) issues of inhumane confinement:

“Is it plausible that none of these deficiencies can be remedied without releasing 46,000 prisoners?  Without taking that radical and dangerous step, exam tables and counter tops cannot be properly disinfected?  None of the system’s dilapidated facilities can be repaired?  Needed medications and equipment cannot be purchased and used?  Staff vacancies cannot be filled?  The qualifications of prison physicians cannot be improved?  A better records management system cannot be developed and implemented?”

Sam is here channeling Dickens (“Are there no workhouses?”) but the point is – talk about micro-managing.  I don’t want to even think about courts diving into such questions.  If there’s an eighth amendment issue there’s only one solution for a court to consider, and that is release.  If you can’t keep prisoners humanely, then you can’t keep them prisoners.  Let them go.  Simple.  Clean.  Not micro-managing.

But, there’s a larger point.  Scalia notes the irony that the Supreme Court has been nothing if not increasingly stingy with federal habeas review for individual cases, yet turns around and essentially grants habeas to 46,000 prisoners at once.

But the joke is on him.  The overcrowding of the California prison system is the predictable result of decades of judicial indifference to the operation of the criminal justice system, an indifference that starts at the top – at the Supreme Court itself.  It’s not a coincidence that the United States imprisons more people than any other country on earth, and that it does so in an increasingly indiscriminate way.  The SCOTUS has long since punted on the great questions of guilt or innocence or proportionality of punishment on an individual basis, even in the sterile context of reliable legal procedures to which it normally confines itself.

So criminal convictions are easily obtained and almost never corrected, even when they are obviously wrongful.  That’s the way SCOTUS wants it.  Why anyone would be surprised that this approach results in more and more prisoners until budgetary breaking points are reached is beyond me.  The only thing a court or anyone can do then is start ordering them released.  Or – and I’m sure this is Nino’s and Sam’s secretly preferred solution – just pretend the problem doesn’t exist, until someone releases some really gruesome photos.  But by then maybe you’ll be retired, or living out of the country you helped ruin, or have moved on to your eternal reward, which may bear a striking resemblance to the corrections systems at issue.

All that aside, it takes a special kind of aloofness for members of the SCOTUS behave as if this problem mysteriously sprouted full grown from god’s head like the mythical Athena.  That kind of intellectual lethargy and denial of moral  responsibility can be found only among judges.  We never let criminals – criminals!!! – get away with something like that.


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Filed under financial crisis, Judicial lying/cheating, wrongful convictions

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