Freakonomics Takes Up Justice Alito’s Plata Challenge

June 1st, 2011

In Brown v. Plata, Justice Alito sounded the alarm, and cautioned that releasing 30,000 prisoners could result in an increase in crime.

The prisoner release ordered in this case is unprecedented, improvident, and contrary to the PLRA. In largely sustaining the decision below, the majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California. Before putting public safety at risk, every reasonable precaution should be taken. The decision below should be reversed, and the case should be remanded for this to be done. I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see.

Well Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, may just take up Justice Alito’s challenge.

Last week, the Supreme Court ordered California to release at least 30,000 prisoners due to poor prison conditions caused by overcrowding.

This is what economists call a “natural experiment,” or what I prefer to call an “accidental experiment.” The Supreme Court order will be a “shock” to the California prison system, leading to roughly a 10 percent reduction in the prison population there. I used this sort of accidental experiment in a paper I published back in 1996, finding a large impact of mandated prison releases on state crime rates.  If my estimates remain relevant to the current time period, I predict that California violent crime rates should rise about 4 percent relative to the rest of the U.S. over the next few years. That adds up to about 80 extra homicides a year.

Five years from now, no doubt, an economics graduate student will analyze the data and tell us what the actual numbers look like. Unless, of course, I beat them to the punch!

Let’s see what economists find in a few years.