Northwestern Law alum discusses overcrowding in state prisons

Joseph Diebold

San Francisco-based attorney Michael Bien (JD ‘80), spoke to about 50 Northwestern Law students at NU’s Chicago campus Monday about the constitutionality of state prison overcrowding.

Bien, a managing partner of Rosen, Bien & Galvan, LLP, lectured about how he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Plata last year. In a 5-4 decision handed down May 23, 2011, the Court ruled in favor of Bien, ruling that overcrowding in some California prisons violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution unless courts placed population limits on the prisons. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the five-justice majority.

“This case arises from serious constitutional violations in California’s prison system,” Kennedy wrote in the opinion of the Court. “The violations have persisted for years. They remain uncorrected.”

In his lecture at NU, Bien praised the Court’s decision.

“Law can still be a tool for social change,” Bien said. “Justice Kennedy’s decision is a powerful affirmation of the fundamental power due to the federal courts to remedy violations of Constitutional rights. The Eighth Amendment not only lives on but it is stronger today than it has been for years.”

The verdict is controversial, however, because population quotas often mean releasing convicted criminals before their sentences are complete.

“If I were a citizen of California, I would be concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners,” Justice Samuel Alito had said during the case argument.

Justice Antonin Scalia agreed, writing a critical dissent in the Brown case.

“One would think that, before allowing the decree of a federal district court to release 46,000 convicted felons, this Court would bend every effort to read the law in such a way as to avoid that outrageous result,” Scalia wrote.

Bien disagreed with Scalia’s argument, saying not one person in California was released early. In his talk, Bien said changes to the parole and probation systems, including moving those convicted of minor crimes to county jails, opened up space in the overcrowded state prisons.

Alan Mills (JD ‘81), the legal director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, said Bien’s work fits with NU’s mindset as a university. University programs such as the Medill Innocence Project and the School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions are devoted to similar issues.

“It fits in perfectly with Northwestern’s overall philosophy, which leans heavily on clinical education, and the (Bluhm Legal Clinic) has a major focus on the criminal justice system,” Mills said.

Second-year law student Linda Nyberg praised Bien’s work.

“It’s really interesting work because you do have those issues of discrimination and coming up against very entrenched stereotypes about prisoners as their own category versus prisoners as people,” Nyberg said. “He’s fighting for the prisoners as people, a standpoint which is not very popular in many segments of the population.”

Third-year law student Will Singer agreed Bien is bringing justice to those who need it most.

“It’s clear California is probably the leading example of a prison system and a criminal justice system gone completely haywire,” Singer said. “He’s doing great work and it’s a position that more politicians and hopefully more citizens will come to agree with.”

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