Today the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on an issue concerning California prison overcrowding. There are three links toward which I would direct your attention:
Supreme Court Orders California to Release Tens of Thousands of Prison Inmates (LA Times)
Actual Supreme Court Ruling
Sheriff Joe Arpaio
The first is an article about the Supreme Court decision, the second is the actual decision, and the third is about how the prison system should be run in the first place. First things first.
At first reading of the article I was conflicted. As a libertarian, I often fight the misconception that libertarianism is indistinguishable from anarchy. It is, however, imperative that any government be able to enforce the few statutes and limitations it sets forth. In the Opinion of the Court the majority asserts that the decision exists to protect the Constitutional rights of the prisoners. If this was the case, if the ruling were as simple as it seems on its face, it would be a laudable example of the court defending the Constitution, its most sacred duty. One must ask, though, what are the Constitutional rights, how are they violated, and how can they best be fixed? Reading both dissents belies the notion that the Court worked only to protect violations of Constitutional right.
Even with my limited knowledge of Constitutional law, I am familiar with the idea that decisions of the court are supposed to be both narrowly tailored and redress specific grievances. The dissents bring to light that this is not the case; it is a matter of activist judges using their position to influence events beyond the scope of their job. Even if the plaintiffs were found to have their Constitutional rights violated, was the fix the best available given the circumstances? I absolutely think it is not.
The law used as justification for the decision, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) states that decisions must be “narrowly tailored to address proven and ongoing Constitutional violations.” The Court worked in realms beyond its power in making the decision, undoing with broad strokes what thousands of citizens in the form of judges, juries, and law enforcement worked for years to do. I would recommend reading Justice Alito’s dissent for a much more eloquent opinion than I could provide.
As to what could have been done instead, the range is vast. I love what Sheriff Joe has done. Snopes even mentions his allowing them to have cable television because it is mandated by law. Seriously. If it was not mandated that prisoners live in such comfort, perhaps there would be money available to reduce the crowding. If they rotated 8-hour shifts working the chain gang, that would leave only 2/3 of them inside at any given time. Given that capacity is currently near 200% and the court ordered the prisons to maintain a maximum of 137.5% of their capacity, the shift-work solution solves the problem without harmful change (1/3 per shift equates to 133.34% in the prison at a time). And that is a solution that meets intent, creates a positive good, and was formulated in an evening. Although it is simplistic and would require more detail, it is meant only to illustrate that there are much better solutions to the problem. I am sure the combined power of the nine most impressive legal minds in the United States could do even better given the proper motivation.
For me, this issue comes down to a bloated Federal power. The Court must be able to enforce the Constitution, but it has gone far beyond. The opinion was not narrowly tailored to address the issue of the plaintiffs, but made sweeping changes to a state system. The changes made were not even the only possible changes to improve the situation. Judicial activism is a huge problem, not only because it will put 37,000 convicted criminals back on the streets early, but because it erodes a system that is designed to safeguard the rights of Citizens against their government.