Social Cost of Brown v. Plata: Property Crimes Increased After Release of Non-Violent Offenders

December 11th, 2013

Shortly after Brown v. Plata was decided, I posed the question of what the social cost of these decisions would be. The San Diego Union Tribune reports on a Public Policy Institute of California report, suggesting that in the wake of the release of 18,000 prisoners in 2011, there has been an increase in property crimes.

The report, titled “Public Safety Realignment and Crime Rates in California,” was released Monday night by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit research institution.

The law went into effect in October 2011 in response to a federal court order for the state to reduce its prison population.

It shifted responsibility for some lower-level nonviolent offenders to county jails and probation officers from state prisons and parole officers. Under realignment, some offenders are released on probation.

About 18,000 offenders who would have been in prison or jail before the policy shift are now on the street, the report said.

During the first year of implementation, property crime overall rose 7.6 percent in the state, the report said. That includes vehicle theft, larceny, and burglary. Nationwide, property crime during the same period decreased slightly, the report said.

Vehicle theft increased 14.8 percent — about 24,000 more thefts per year, the report said. That reversed a decline in the vehicle-theft rate in the state.

Violent crime increased 3.4 percent during the period, but that appeared to be part of a broader trend also experienced by other states, the report said. Violent crime includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

This seems more correlation than causation.

Supporters of the realignment program note that though there has been an increase in crime, it hasn’t been as bad as many predicted:

In response to the study, Deborah Hoffman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that as the researchers noted, crime rates “remain at historically low levels and are substantially below those observed a decade ago.”

Under realignment, “the state is investing hundreds millions of dollars in local rehabilitation and crime-prevention programs to continue to improve public safety in our communities,” she said. “The impact of these investments will be measured over years, not months.”

Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice and drug policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, also commented on the report. He said the research “confirms that realignment has not caused a public safety catastrophe in California.”

“We now have independent data that confirms that California can successfully reduce our state’s reliance on incarceration,” Hopper said.

To put this decision in terms of social cost, the liberty costs (the harm to liberty by incarcerating too many people) exceeds the safety cost (the cost to safety by releasing potentially dangerous people). In other words, the ACLU argues that society should be willing to endure a slight uptick in property crimes, in order to decrease prison populations.

See my earlier posts on the increase in crime rates after Plata here and here.

One of these days I will return to my work on social cost. And Kennedy’s federalism. The past year has been insanely busy with book writing and book promotion.