Alas, my chapter on institutional reform litigation in Schools for Misrule has proved only too relevant to the headlines: In today’s 5-4 Brown v. Plata decision, the Supreme Court approved a Ninth Circuit panel’s order that 46,000 California prisoners be freed to relieve overcrowding (opinion PDF via Josh Blackman). Alito (with Roberts) dissented on the grounds that the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act requires nothing of the sort, and in fact was drafted with a mind to discourage such outcomes:
Before ordering any prisoner release, the PLRA commands a court to “give substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety or the operation of a criminal justice system caused by the relief.” §3626(a)(1)(A). This provision unmistakably reflects Congress’ view that prisoner release orders are inherently risky. In taking this view, Congress was well aware of the impact of previous prisoner release orders. 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 an 18-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. Members of Congress were well aware of this experience.
Scalia (with Thomas) dissented on the grounds that, PLRA aside, the orders go far beyond the federal courts’ prescribed role and institutional competence:
It is important to recognize that the dressing-up of policy judgments as factual findings is not an error peculiar to this case. It is an unavoidable concomitant of institutional-reform litigation. When a district court issues an injunction, it must make a factual assessment of the anticipated consequences of the injunction. And when the injunction undertakes to restructure a social institution, assessing the factual consequences of the injunction is necessarily the sort of predictive judgment that our system of government allocates to other government officials.
But structural injunctions do not simply invite judges to indulge policy preferences. They invite judges to indulge incompetent policy preferences. Three years of law school and familiarity with pertinent Supreme Court precedents give no insight whatsoever into the management of social institutions. Thus, in the proceeding below the District Court determined that constitutionally adequate medical services could be provided if the prison population was 137.5% of design capacity. This was an empirical finding it was utterly unqualified to make. Admittedly, the court did not generate that number entirely on its own; it heard the numbers 130% and 145% bandied about by various witnesses and decided to split the difference. But the ability of judges to spit back or even average-out numbers spoon-fed to them by expert witnesses does not render them competent decisionmakers in areas in which they are otherwise unqualified.
Concur: Ted Frank, Hans Bader. A contrasting view: Tim Lynch at Cato. Background: podcast with Sarah Hart, Federalist Society. And Jason Mazzone asks whether the majority’s inclusion of a photo of crowded prisoners really helps or hurts its case with the public.