I, for one, am nothing less than pleased with the holding of Brown v. Plata. No, I have not read the entire opinion; yes, I probably will eventually. I’m sure there’s dicta strewn throughout that will annoy me, and I’m sure somewhere out there one of us was so excited to shove it down my poor throat. Haters gotta hate.
The criticism I’ve heard most is simply that Brown v. Plata isn’t really going to change things, as Governor Brown’s proposal is to meet the holding by shifting people from the state prison (felony) system to county jails (traditionally for temporary and misdemeanor holdings). Essentially, so the argument goes, this holding does nothing more than take the exact same problem and shove it into a very slightly different bureaucracy.
Well, fucking duh! Since when have we expected exceptional practicality from the Supreme Court? The fact of the matter is, in the eyes of the American people, the Supreme Court is important because, sure, it somehow exerts force over our day-to-day lives, being the ultimate legal arbiter, and all. However, the vast majority of Supreme Court decisions, individually, have relatively minor effects on the vast majority of everyday citizens, at least in terms determining what our day-to-day activities will be. While the aggregate of Supreme Court decisions over the past 250 years certainly has helped created the paradigm in which we all structure our individual decisions, I’d argue that, in most respects, how we choose to behave each day is not all that different from how our equivalents in most other Western democracies do, despite the fact that they have not had the precise same case law.**
The Supreme Court matters much more to laypeople in the sense that we expect it to reflect Americans’ general public consciousness and positivist morality. After all, it’s arguable that K-12 schools are nearly as segregated today as they were before Brown v. Board of Education, but that doesn’t change the fact that most of us view that decision as completely necessary and correct. Loving v. Virginia didn’t end bias against interracial romance, but it at least took the normative stand that the government would no longer openly tolerate anti-miscegenation policies. Lawrence v. Texas told the state to butt out of our bedrooms, pun intended, but that doesn’t mean that all members of society respect homosexuality, or that even more people still frown upon women who also have anal sex. Mount Laurel* asserted that New Jersey should find stratification-promoting state action repugnant, but that doesn’t mean that there are still rich and poor towns, with all of the corresponding property tax and public services issues.
The importance, here, is that the Supreme Court recognized that prison overcrowding is a serious fucking problem that deserves the nation’s attention, energy, and creativity. The importance is that this incredibly well-respected governmental branch deigned the issue important enough to even hear it in the first place, and then actually decided that yes, prison overcrowding is, indeed, something for which we should not stand.
It’s easy to bitch that the Supreme Court didn’t truly fix the problem, because the prisoners, at the moment, will just go to another incarceration facility. However, first of all, the judiciary’s job is to arbitrate, not to execute; frankly, it is not the “pragmatic” branch. It is not the Supreme Court’s place to actually sit around and draw up a plan for how California can fix itself.
Second, while Governor Brown’s plan does have the prisoners going to county jails, this plan is hardly set in stone. Moreover, Plata still has significant persuasive force over the states and will incentivize California, in particular, to keep in mind its underlying rationale when structuring its prisoner shuffling. Plata also catalyzes much-needed prison reform by catapulting the issue into kitchens and water coolers across the state and country, providing fertile ground for grassroots support of true institutional change.
Thesis: quit fucking bitching. The United States would be a worse fucking country if the Court had swung the other way.
N.B. This is not to say that California’s entire political system isn’t completely fucked up. See., e.g., the “California,” “Education,” and/or “Public Policy” tabs above.
P.S. The people of California were not the only ones who almost legalized marijuana; since the economy tanked, even state legislators have entered this bill into committee. Legalizing California’s favorite crop (other than avocados) alone would dramatically reduce the prison population. (And, of course, the color of those who actually are incarcerated for narcotics sale and possession most certainly is not in proportion with that of all involved parties.)
*not a U.S. Supreme Court case
** Of course, there still are significant differences between, say, how we look at sexual harassment in France versus the United States, or vacation time between Great Britain and Spain, or collective bargaining in Germany versus Norway, but again, my point is that, on the whole, the social-political contexts of most of these countries overwhelmingly overlap, and, in the aggregate, most of us structure our public behavior in similar ways.