Justice Scalia’s Overheated Dissent


"Terrible things [are] sure to happen," including many "murders, robberies, and rapes."

That was dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia’s dire prediction on May 23, when by a 5-to-4 vote the Supreme Court sort-of-ordered California to reduce its prison population of about 150,000 by 37,000 as a remedy for "cruel and unusual" denial of medical care to inmates.

Thirty-seven thousand hardened criminals loosed among us! Soaring rates of murders, robberies, and rapes!

I don’t think so. For two reasons.

First, 37,000 prisoners are not going to be released anytime soon, if at all, as a result of this decision. Lost in the noise was the majority’s strong suggestion that the lower court extend from two to five years California’s deadline for reducing its prison population. Also drowned out was the majority’s hope that the state may find ways to fix prison medical care with no mass release at all.

Second, while several thousand prisoners have already been released early and thousands more will be, many or most of these will be minor, nonviolent, non-dangerous drug offenders and the like who should never have been given long prison terms in the first place.

This is not to deny that some of those released will commit violent crimes. People released from prison after serving their time often commit violent crimes. It’s called recidivism.

Nor is this to deny that the dissenters in the prison release case, Brown v. Plata, made some strong points, especially as to the flaws in the lower court decision – by three of the most liberal activist judges in the country – that the majority nominally affirmed.

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