By Guillermo Vallejo
Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that California’s cramped prison population must be reduced by more than 30,000 inmates. The Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, ruled that the persistent overcrowding of the state’s prisons had led to a “systemic violation” of the Eighth Amendment. Once again, the Supreme Court has taken it upon itself to not only enter into an area that ought and must be left to the states to decide, but also legislate from the bench. To add insult to injury, the Court declared that California has two years to comply with its ruling. Potentially, thousands of inmates could be released by this decision.
Yesterday’s ruling should not be seen as a fluke or a regrettable aberration that is the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, ever since the Warren Court began to disassemble the original meaning of the Constitution, decisions like these are the rule. The Warren Court replaced the proper theory of judicial interpretation and substituted it with the know cliché “living constitution” paradigm. Rather than a social contract with a fixed meaning, known to those who ratified it, the constitution is seen as an empty bottle ready to be filled by the current society’s trendy view of what it should be. Unfortunately, this is not just naïve. It is dangerous. It arrogantly assumes that American society always gets better. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, that is simply not the case. If the Constitution is what the current society says it ought to mean then it might give you more freedom today and less freedom tomorrow.
The Court’s majority opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy (kinda takes the suspense out of guessing how he might will rule on Obamacare), stated that prison overcrowding led to terrible conditions. Apparently forty inmates had to share one toilet and over 200 people were housed in a gym. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a freshman dormitory or a fraternity house. I experienced far worse in my four years of dealing with the college housing system.
I’m not trivializing the issue of prison overcrowding. Is it an issue? Yes. Should it be addressed and corrected? Absolutely. Does the federal government have the right to dictate terms to the states as to how to proceed? No. Poor prison conditions do not automatically trigger an Eighth Amendment violation. As Justice Scalia stated in his dissent, “the mere existence of the inadequate system does not subject to cruel and unusual punishment the entire prison population in need of medical care, including those who receive it.”
California has been addressing the problems facing their prison system for the last few years. It is not as if California had been sitting on its hands and not trying to find a reasonable solution. California had already started, under former Governor Schwarzenegger, to relocate some of the inmate population to private prisons out of state. These are the actions of a state that had been confronting a tough domestic issue in a determined and pragmatic way.
The majority’s opinion made it seem like California had been casting inmates into prisons reminiscent of a Les Miserables. The Supreme Court should stop trying to right every wrong its members think should be corrected. If we continue operating under the assumption that everything that is annoying or odious should have a constitutional remedy then the Constitution will ultimately accomplish nothing.
Guillermo Vallejo works on Capitol Hill for a Florida Member of Congress. He is originally from Miami, Florida and holds a Masters Degree in Democracy and Governance from Georgetown University. The views expressed herein are his own and provided in a personal capacity, not tied to his work in the U.S. Government.