SCOTUS requires California to release 46,000 prisoners!

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I’m not one to sit around all day reading Supreme Court decisions, and I suspect not many of you are either. Since this one was so stunningly wrong, I felt compelled to read it just to see the logical (or perhaps illogical) gymnastics the justices had to offer for the reason they are ordering California to release 46,000 prisoners. You can read the entire decision here http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/96605/brown-v-plata.pdf and it’s worth the read. It’s a light 91 page read. The pages I liked the best were the dissenting opinions. For those of you who haven’t read at least a few cases, they are typically opinions written by one justice and agreed to by other justices. This saves them all the trouble of writing their own opinions. There are the majority opinions (the winners) and the dissenters (the losers). Sometimes justices will write their own opinions. In the few I have read, I’ve never seen sarcasm… until these opinions. I think I will be reading more of these dissenting justices in the near future; they have a certain flair that seems to be missing in literature today.

To set this case up for you, I’ll try to offer a thumbnail: Two class action lawsuits were brought against California on behalf of inmates in state prison who were not getting sufficient medical and mental health care. This, it is argued, is a violation of their eighth amendments rights, and thus must be remedied. It is then “proven” that these conditions exist because of overcrowding of the jails, which are at double their designed capacity.

I’ll be honest, I could only stomach so much of the majority opinion. It seemed somewhat reasonable, but they used a common debate technique: start with an innocent “fact” that probably is true, add a few expert opinions, and draw a conclusion that is questionable without the “facts” and the opinions come at from those “facts”. For instance, the prisons are overcrowded (fact). Medical treatment in prisons is overloaded (fact). If we reduced overcrowding there would be less demand on the medical facilities and the mental health care facilities. (opinion that kind of makes sense- if there were only five prisoners there would be no waiting to see a prison doctor). Conclusion (follow this here) because overcrowding leads to reduced quality of medical and mental health care we must eliminate overcrowding by reducing overcrowding to X number. Does this make sense? Sure, if we were reducing prison populations without releasing thousands of prisoners!

I went through the opinions cutting and pasting without shame. It’s late, and I’m going to need my rest to figure out how to protect what’s mine from these hordes the activists appointed to the courts (pretty well made obvious, by the way, by the dissenting opinions that they agree with me- or more I with them) These are merely the gems that leapt off the page at me. I’ll suggest you take some time to read the whole thing when you can. If you’re pressed for time, you can simply scroll to page 57 for the first of two dissenting opinions. You’ll pick up rather quickly what the majority opinion is because the dissenters set it up and then knock it down point by point. As I said, I’m just offering the gems here.

 

 

BROWN v. PLATA

JUSTICE SCALIA, with whom JUSTICE THOMAS joins, dissenting.

Today the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history: an order requiring California to release the staggering number of 46,000 convicted criminals.

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.

The proceedings that led to this result were a judicial travesty. I dissent because the institutional reform the District Court has undertaken violates the terms of the governing statute, ignores bedrock limitations on the power of Article III judges, and takes federal courts wildly beyond their institutional capacity. 

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 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.

I will state my approach briefly: In my view, a court may not order a prisoner’s release unless it determines that the prisoner is suffering from a violation of his constitutional rights, and that his release, and no other relief, will remedy that violation. Thus, if the court determines that a particular prisoner is being denied constitutionally required medical treatment, and the release of that prisoner (and no other remedy) would enable him to obtain medical treatment, then the court can order his release; but a court may not order the release of prisoners who have suffered no violations of their constitutional rights, merely to make it less likely that that will happen to them in the future.

JUSTICE ALITO, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE joins, dissenting

Both of the cases were brought not on behalf of all inmates subjected to overcrowding, but rather in the interests of much more limited classes of prisoners, namely, those needing mental health treatment and those with other serious medical needs. But these cases were used as a springboard to implement a criminal justice program far different from that chosen by the state legislature. Instead of crafting a remedy to attack the specific constitutional violations that were found—which related solely to prisoners in the two plaintiff classes—the lower court issued a decree that will at best provide only modest help to those prisoners but that is very likely to have a major and deleterious effect on public safety. 

The three-judge court ordered the premature release of approximately 46,000 criminalsthe equivalent of three Army divisions. 

The three-judge court would have us believe that the early release of 46,000 inmates will not imperil—and will actually improve—public safety. Common sense and experience counsel greater caution. 

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 properly be 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?

The three-judge court rejected this proposal, and its response exemplified what went wrong in this case. One judge complained that this remedy would be deficient because it would protect only the members of the plaintiff classes. The judge stated:

“The only thing is we would be protecting the class members. And maybe that’s the appropriate thing to do. I mean, that’s what this case is about, but it would be . . . difficult for me to say yes, and the hell with everybody else.”

Overstepping his authority, the judge was not content to provide relief for the classes of plaintiffs on whose behalf the suit before him was brought. Nor was he content to remedy the only constitutional violations that were proved—which concerned the treatment of the members of those classes. Instead, the judge saw it as his responsibility to attack the general problem of overcrowding.

The prisoner release program carried out a few years earlier in Philadelphia is illustrative. In the early 1990’s, federal courts enforced a cap on the number of inmates in the Philadelphia prison system, and thousands of inmates were set free. Although efforts were made to release only those prisoners who were least likely to commit violent crimes, that attempt was spectacularly unsuccessful. During an18-month period, the Philadelphia police rearrested thousands of these prisoners for committing 9,732 new crimes. Those defendants were charged with 79 murders, 90 rapes, 1,113 assaults, 959 robberies, 701 burglaries, and 2,748 thefts, not to mention thousands of drug offenses.

 Despite the record of past prisoner release orders, the three-judge court in this case concluded that loosing 46,000 criminals would not produce a tally like that in Philadelphia and would actually improve public safety.

The particular three-judge court convened in this case was “confident” that releasing 46,000 prisoners pursuant to its plan “would in fact benefit public safety.” According to that court, “overwhelming evidence” supported this purported finding. But a more cautious court, less bent on implementing its own criminal justice agenda, would have at least acknowledged that the consequences of this massive prisoner release cannot be ascertained in advance with any degree of certainty and that it is entirely possible that this release will produce results similar to those under prior court-ordered population caps. After all, the sharp increase in the California prison population that the three judge court lamented, has been accompanied by an equally sharp decrease in violent crime.These California trends mirror similar developments at the national level,and “[t]here is a general consensus that the decline in crime is, at least in part, due to more and longer prison sentences.”

The majority argues that the three-judge court nevertheless gave substantial weight to public safety because its order left “details of implementation to the State’s discretion.”. Yet the State had told the three-judge court that, after studying possible population reduction measures, it concluded that “reducing the prison population to137.5% within a two-year period cannot be accomplished without unacceptably compromising public safety.” The State found that public safety required a 5-year period in which to achieve the ordered reduction.

Thus, the three-judge court approved a population reduction plan that neither it nor the State found could be implemented without unacceptable harm to public safety. And this Court now holds that the three-judge court discharged its obligation to “give substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety,” by deferring to officials who did not believe the reduction could be accomplished in a safe manner.

In largely sustaining the decision below, the majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California. Before putting public safety at risk, every reasonable precaution should be taken. The decision below should be reversed, and the case should be remanded for this to be done. I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see.

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