The Social (and Fiscal Cost) of Brown v. Plata

September 27th, 2011

I gave a moot job talk at the University of Kentucky yesterday, and a professor who specializes in commercial law made a point that should have been obvious about my work on social cost–it includes actual costs in dollars and cents, usually in the form of tax bills. Brown v. Plata, for example, imposes a tangible monetary liberty cost on the people who California who now have to deal with these released prisoners.

From the Sacramento Bee:

In less than two weeks, Sacramento County will start assuming responsibility for thousands of inmates and parolees now watched over by the state.  The pending shift has touched off a debate within the county over how to spend millions of dollars also coming from the state — whether to create more jail beds or fund treatment programs aimed at keeping convicts from offending again.

The state budget approved earlier this year gave counties responsibility for lower-level offenders released from prison or sentenced under new requirements.  Counties will get offenders convicted of crimes called the “triple-nons”: nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual.

Sacramento County expects to receive about 200 parolees and newly sentenced offenders next month. When the transition is complete in four years, the county can expect responsibility for 2,300 additional inmates and parolees….

County law enforcement officials have spent months discussing how to divvy up $13.1 million the county will receive from the state for this year.  They don’t expect to take a plan to the Board of Supervisors for final approval until late October….

Counties with completed plans have taken different approaches.  In Fresno County, where a crowded jail has led to thousands of early releases, officials have decided to use the bulk of their new funds to reopen part of the jail.  San Francisco County plans to spend some of its funding on jails, but most of the money will go to alternatives to incarceration, including drug treatment and work training.

Edward Latessa, a nationally recognized expert on community corrections, told a crowd of California probation officers earlier this year that treatment is more effective than punishment at keeping offenders from committing new crimes.  He also said punishment alone doesn’t work.  He said the most effective programs work on changing attitudes — which is what Sacramento County’s Probation Department hopes to achieve with one of its proposals.  The department wants to use cognitive behavioral therapy for offenders who report to a day center.

Such an approach would be more effective than simply putting people in jail, said Don Meyer, the county’s chief probation officer.  “This county has been successful at locking people up,” he said. “This county has not been successful at stopping the problem (of crime).”…

Gov. Jerry Brown made it a cornerstone of his budget to shift responsibility for lower-level inmates to counties.  Since then, state corrections and county probation officials have pushed for more treatment programs as an alternative to locking people up.  But some Sacramento County officials said they aren’t ready to let more offenders out on the street.

These costs, unlike abstract costs like liberty or security, can actually be quantified (and this makes them much more real than abstract costs).