Monday, May 23, 2011

Brown v. Plata

The decision is available here. The opinion
was delivered by Kennedy, supra.
I will disclose to you that I am not a lawyer and am merely providing a layman's opinion of the opinion of the opinionators. Now I will provide my totally-valid [0] teenage commentary and summary:

First of all, this was a classic 5-4: Ginsburg, Breyer [1], Sotomayor, Kagan, and Kennedy vs. Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas. I wonder if the losing side ever bullies the perpetual median that is Kennedy. Do they seize him in the hallway, two grabbing his legs while Ginsburg or Thomas give him a wedgie? Do they spit on him afterwards and say "Better not fuck with us again, Kennedy!" [2]

[0] In contradiction with the previous sentence. [1] Breyer looks like a pothead. At least when he was appointed. [2] I probably shouldn't be making fun nor imagining false situations with the Supreme Court justices if I ever desire to get a Supreme Court clerkship. Gotta love the Ginsburg!
There are 156,000 prisoners in the prison system of California, which is only designed to hold 80,000, and now the Supreme Court has ordered them to release up to 37,000 prisoners on top of the 9,000 that have already been released in compliance with previous Supreme Court orders. I don't have to tell you that the prisoner population is disproportionately ethnic, uneducated and poor, you can find that for yourself in this demographic report. Because of this overcrowding, prisoners who needed access to medical and mental health resources were underserved in an unconstitutional way.

Eighty-thousand, in addition to being the stated capacity is also roughly the amount of violent offenders imprisoned. Which means that either they eliminate most people convicted of a "light felony" [3] or true criminals are going to have to be released back to society.

[3] Prisoners are undercounted in the California penal system, the reason given being constant "fluctuations" in the population. Like, a twenty-thousand people fluctuation. MY ASS is a fluctuation, did I ever mention that? As you might expect, all of these excess prisoners must be housed in non-standard situations like described below. Some of the temporal prisoners could be transferred to empty jails, 12,000 in number, however, under a plan by Larry David look-alike Jerry Brown.
Some extreme examples of this overcrowding are the suffering and deaths that resulted from overcrowding. For example, one toilet had to be shared with 54 people [although it is reported that no one suffered distress from a toilet seat left up.] Beds had to be triple bunked, or inmates housed with minimal guardiance in open gymnasiums which directly led to the unavailability of personal security and wholesomeness described in one of the final quotes. Even the Republican Governator found this to be unacceptable in a released statement, although being the fiscal conservative that he is his solution did not involve a manipulation of the budget [although the state has since authorized the construction of many thousand beds, but not enough to cover the shortfall.]

The triple bunk beds in question. A rare insertion
of a photograph into the opinion. Maybe the next
decision will involve a Facebook page?
Certain commentators have said that this is an overstep by the judicial branch of the Federal government into states rights, but Kennedy lays it clear. The state of California was devolved the right in PLRA [Prison Litigation Reform At] to choose how they will handle prisoner complaints by a number of methods, and not the right to completely ignore  the constitutional crisis as it has, which is when the Federal government must step in and grant enforcement of those rights to citizens who happen to be prisoners. The Constitution is a guarantee, not a privilege, and prisons were so understaffed that wardens made the difficult decision as to whether they will fail to comply with either Coleman or Plata, the decisions guaranteeing the right to mental healthcare and medical healthcare, respectively, that have been combined here to bring forth the tri-panel. [4]

By the books, the three judge panel consisting of a supernumerary and the judges that had affirmed the Coleman and Plata decisions was convened  to approve a state plan that could involve new construction, exporting the prisoners or ultimately, release. The standard needed to show that the overcrowding was the primary cause was quite strongly set thoughtfully with state sovereignty in mind at "clear and convincing evidence".

Frankly, I didn't even bother reading over the dissents by Alito [who the f*** is Alito?] and Scalia,  who used the word "fanciful" to describe something, which is never a good sign and thank God they were on the losing side. They both concurred that the three-judge panel presiding over the release of the many thousand prisoners was in essence writing 46,000 blank checks to the state executive branch, assuming that the prison administrators have no sense in knowing how to prioritize the release of prisoners to cause minimal harm to society. Never mind [6] that the panel judges have decades of experience handling these cases between them, or that Bader Ginsburg had previously given some valid reasoning in the dissent of Connick v. Thompson to the provision of relief to a plaintiff because of the overbearing likelihood that without it, another constitutional violation was sure to happen to someone else, making the single complaint as good as a plurality. By extension, it is not wrong or dismissive of duty to preemptively relieve future and current inmates of the total certainty of unconstitutional sheltering by releasing inmates whose isolation poses little benefit to society.

[4] Taken mildly verbatim. [5] As opposed to preponderance of evidence, which is only 51%. Did I mention that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the awesomest woman evah! [6] I heard that Scalia and Ginsburg are friends. You would never guess by their dissents of each other, or should I say, dissing. Here's a funny picture of them on an elephant. Too good to be true.
Oh no. Say it ain't so.

Now that this has been codified in a decision, this precedent of determining a acceptable amount of overpopulation could be applied to the prison systems of other states. All that must be proved is that resources are inadequate primarily because of a shortage of space and persons and they could be mandated to reduce their prison population and bam, we have a mass exodus of prisoners, luckily presided over by the neutral Federal government. It is definitely something that the penal community will have to consider in whether or not to implement new treatment programs and pursue prison time for offenders, with the evidence that prisons are too costly with not enough rehabilitation. The data has shown that the severity of constitutional offenses and recidivism is exponential to the degree of over capacity, and somewhere in there Kennedy sums this up succintly . I found this salient quote to leave you with:
After one prisoner was assaulted in a crowded gymnasium, prison staff did not even learn of the injury until the prisoner had been dead for several hours.
And the opener of Scalia's dissent. I would have personally thought of Brown v. Board of Education in the radical change involving millions, but to each his own:
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.
Alito's take is even more dramatic:
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.
Read: If we release people who pass bad checks, a lot of people will die. I can only hope that I will be proven right by time.