“I turned to a colleague and said, ‘Somebody’s going to die over this.’”

September 25th, 2011

Deputy Philadelphia District Attorney Sarah Vandenbraak Hart winced as a federal judge signed off on a settlement the city reached in a 1986 jail overcrowding case. The pact would force the city to release thousands of inmates and to turn others away at the cell door upon arrival.

“I remember the day the order was entered,” recalls Hart, who, 25 years later, still is fighting cases over jail conditions. “I turned to a colleague and said, ‘Somebody’s going to die over this.’ ”

So did this prediction come true?

It happened in 1991, when recently released car thief Edward Bracey gunned down 21-year-old rookie police officer Daniel Boyle. The officer had chased Bracey, who was driving a stolen car. Bracey, now on death row, fired eight times at Boyle, killing him.

In an 18-month period from January 1993 through June 1994, police reported rearresting 9,732 prisoners released because of the cap. New charges included 79 murders, 1,113 assaults, 959 robberies, 701 burglaries, 90 rapes, 14 kidnappings, 264 firearms violations, 2,748 thefts, 2,215 drug-dealing offenses and 127 counts of drunken driving. Besides Boyle, five other police officers were shot but survived.

“The problem is that you’re dealing with an incredibly risky population, especially when you throw in mental health issues and drug addiction,” says prosecutor Hart. She co-authored an amicus brief in the California case for 18 states worried they someday may have to defend lawsuits like the one that hit California.

As I noted during oral arguments, and in his dissent, this opinion weighed heavily on the mind of Justice Alito in Brown v. Plata.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. may have had a similar premonition when, in 1995 as a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Philadelphia, he partially dissented from an affirmation of a contempt finding against the city for failing to live up to its end of the consent decree. On the high court, Alito recounted the Philadelphia story last term as a dissenter in a California prison overcrowding decision that similarly could put thousands of felons back on the streets.

“The majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California,” Alito complained in Brown v. Plata, decided May 23. “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.”

Brown v. Plata represents a stark contrast between safety costs and liberty costs. Alito saw only the liberty costs–the costs of setting the prisoners free (in this case the murder of a police officer). Kennedy saw only the safety costs–the horrible crowding conditions, and how that affects the dignity (and blah blah other fancy words) of the prisoners.

This ABA Journal article notes as much:

Yet the Supreme Court majority still appeared torn between public safety and prison conditions.

So how was the district court in Philadelphia at measuring costs?

“Of course, it was neither the intention nor the expectation of the district court in Philadelphia that imposing a population cap on the local prison system would lead to such violence against police and other innocent victims,” the amicus brief acknowledges. “Judicial intervention into prison affairs invariably begins with the best of intentions.”

Critics and the Supreme Court majority simply don’t believe the Philadelphia experience. “That’s never been substantiated to my knowledge,” says lead California in mate lawyer Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office in San Quentin.