Sunday, July 8, 2012

Let's stop perverse motives in prison sentencing

It is commonly understood that perverse things happen in prisons but we should to be outraged when justice is twisted to further personal interests at the expense of the incarcerated but to their families, loved ones, and the greater society that needs these precious resources.  Consider the following two examples.

Louisiana has become the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the US.  Fundamentally, this is driven by "entrepreneurial" prisons owned by rural sheriffs and law enforcement receiving funds connected with prisons and the number of prisoners incarcerated in them.
If the inmate count dips, sheriffs bleed money. Their constituents lose jobs. The prison lobby ensures this does not happen by thwarting nearly every reform that could result in fewer people behind bars.
Not only are sentences shockingly high -- "a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole" -- but the likelihood of parole has dropped since Louisiana has shifted to the paradigm of entrepreneurial prisons.  See a full-sized version of the graphic with this link.

Except from the Times-Picayune graphic

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association -- the union for its prison guards -- is infamously influential in state politics and has pushed a pro-incarceration agenda for years. 
It gave over $100,000 to California’s Three Strikes initiative, Proposition 184in 1994, making it the second-largest contributor. It gave at least $75,000 to the opponents of Proposition 36, the 2000 initiative that replaced incarceration with substance abuse treatment for certain nonviolent offenders. From 1998 to 2000 it gave over $120,000 to crime victims’ groups, who present a more sympathetic face to the public in their pro-incarceration advocacy. It spent over $1 million to help defeat Proposition 66, the 2004 initiative that would have limited the crimes that triggered a life sentence under the Three Strikes law. And in 2005, it killed Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plan to “reduce the prison population by as much as 20,000, mainly through a program that diverted parole violators into rehabilitation efforts: drug programs, halfway houses and home detention.”
Why push the agenda?  CCPOA member Lt. Peters explains in the context of pushing the Three Strikes law.

You can get a job anywhere. This is a career. And with the upward mobility and rapid expansion of the department, there are opportunities for the people who are [already] correction staff, and opportunities for the general public to become correctional officers. We’ve gone from 12 institutions to 28 in 12 years, and with “Three Strikes” and the overcrowding we’re going to experience with that, we’re going to need to build at least three prisons a year for the next five years. Each one of those institutions will take approximately 1,000 employees.
Moreover, the political power wielded by the union also shelters its members from oversight and prosecution.

If for some reason fair play and justice for the incarcerated fail to get one riled, then there are several practical reasons to stop allowing self-motivated agents push for extraordinarily long sentences.  One, keeping people in prison is really... really ... really expensive.  By an estimate, a year in state prison costs more than a year at Princeton.  Mind you, this only captures the accounting costs of keeping that man or woman in prison in that a person in prison is broadly not a productive member of society.  Moreover, skills deteriorate in prison reducing a former inmates ability to be productive.  Two, if we treat non-violent offenses severely, the consequences of being caught for violent and non-violent crimes becomes relatively more similar and there is less incentive for a criminal to avoid violence.  In other words, if someone is going to say rob a store or a person, one might as well use a deadly weapon since the difference in punishment might be small.  Three, decades of research strongly suggests that increasing the likelihood of being caught and punished is a better crime deterrent than the severity of punishment.  Take for example, Honolulu's project HOPE as described here.  In short, not only are we using a lot of resources that we desperately need elsewhere -- 10.4 billion dollars by Pew's back of the envelope calculation -- we're getting lousy results with high recidivism!

We can be tough on crime, but we should be smarter on who we lower the hammer.  At the moment, we have over six million of people in prison at a higher rate per population than any other country in the world.  Moving to a strategy of greater certainty and swifter punishment rather than long sentences sounds like a really complicated and perhaps expensive strategy.  Although there are some working examples of how to move forward on the idea.  But we can continue what a handful of states have already started with the obvious step of using our dollars more wisely by tailoring our sentences to keep violent and threatening criminals off the street rather than those committing crimes which might annoy, offend, or make life a more difficult in the short run.  It's something that liberals and conservatives can support together.


  1. Thoughtful piece - I like your distinction between violent and nonviolent offenders. I'd like to see discretion given back to sentencing judges so that individuals can truly be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The "3 strikes" laws were very popular with voters (and that's where I'd place the blame), but it's led to the unsustainably large and idle prison population that you mention. 6 million!!!

    1. Thank you for the compliment.

      I don't disagree that citizens -- was the Three Strikes Law passed by voter referendum in CA? ... my memory says yes -- should be the final arbitrators of right an wrong and vote accordingly. But information is expensive and public choice by voters is often slow and imprecise.

      Allowing for some error in counts, I think we can confidently say that there are more people in prison than in 35 states. It's such a waste on so many levels.

  2. There is no doubt this has all become a money making racket for small towns where everyone is in cahoots from the cops to the courts and the lawyers. Worse the police actively use entrapment and sweeps to net profitable "customers" from at risk people such as teenagers and young adults exploiting their naivety and trapping them into a corrections system of failure. Meanwhile politicians are happily adding to the legal morass with yet more laws for enforcement.

    This cycle is indeed hard to unravel and make socially unacceptable. Clearly resetting the terms of "success" for law enforcement officials so it is NOT more arrests and more court cases, but rather the reverse, would go a long way. Quite how you setup that reverse reward structure though is an interesting challenge. Maybe grant moneys to reward falling arrest rates.