Three Years Later, What Was the Social Cost of Brown v. Plata?

October 22nd, 2013

Three years ago, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata that affirmed the ordered release of 40,000 prisoners, I asked what would the social cost be of that decision. That is, what is the negative cost to society as a result of protecting the liberty interests of the prisoners (I call these liberty costs).

Well, now we have data. Courtesy of Tamaro Tabo at ATL, former California Governors filed a brief with the Supreme Court to accompany Governor Browns emergency petition to stay the order (this petition was denied). Tabo summarizes the findings:

  • Murder increased only 1.5% nationally but 10.5% in California cities.
  • Rape declined 0.3% nationally but increased 6.4% in California cities.
  • Burglary declined 3.6% nationally but increased 7.9% in California cities.
  • Theft crimes generally stayed flat nationwide, but increased 9% in California cities.
  • Auto theft in particular increased only 1.3 % nationally but increased a whopping 15% in California cities.

The brief concludes:

These preliminary numbers do not, by themselves, prove that prisoner releases pursuant to the order of the three-judge panel are necessarily the cause of the increased victimization. Crime is a complex phenomenon with no one cause or one cure. They do, however, raise the very substantial possibility that the experts’ “difficult predictive judgments” were wrong and that innocent people are being victimized in large numbers as a result. If so, then further releases of criminals who are even more dangerous, see Application for Stay 38, will cause even greater increases in victimization.

Given the irreparable harm of criminal victimization, the likelihood that further releases will cause more victimization, and the dramatic improvements in California prison health care since the original trial in this case, no further reductions should be ordered without a full examination of the case on the merits by this Court.

There is no discussion of causation. Only correlation.

Recall that during during oral arguments in Schwarzenneger v. Plata, Justice Alito had this to say about the social costs of a prison release order whereby 40,000 prisoners would be released.

JUSTICE ALITO: That is a very indirect way of addressing the problem and it has collateral consequences. If — if I were a citizen of California, I would be concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners. And I don’t care what you term it, a prison release order or whatever the terminology you used was. If 40,000 prisoners are going to be released, you really believe that if you were to come back here 2 years after that, you would be able to say, they haven’t — they haven’t contributed to an increase in crime in the State of California? In the — in the amicus brief that was submitted by a number of States, there is an extended discussion of the effect of one prisoner release order with which I am familiar, and that was in Philadelphia; and after a period of time they tallied up what the cost of that was, the number of murders, the number of rapes, the number of armed robberies, the number of assaults -you don’t — that’s not going to happen in California?

Now we have some numbers.