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Rethinking Prison February 11, 2009

Posted by federalist in Human Markets, Judiciary, Open Questions.

I previously lamented our society’s increasing dependence on imprisonment as a means of providing “justice.”

Anthony Gregory has an excellent discussion of this issue in the context of the current California prison system.

It seems clear that American-style imprisonment is an ineffective form of justice: It does provide deterrence to most criminals, but in general it is a poorly tailored punishment (except, perhaps, with respect to crimes of kidnapping).  It does not effectively reform criminals — in fact, it often seems to harden them.  It does not protect society from the criminally disposed, except when they are given life sentences.  And it certainly does not serve any interests of restitution, as Gregory notes:

Each prisoner costs taxpayers thirty-five thousand a year. Victims are not made whole, but forced to foot the bill to house their perpetrators. The state used to have some restitution centers through which white-collar convicts could work and pay back their victims as well as some of their detention costs—but these were closed down last month. State officials said the program was too expensive. Only government could lose more money making people work than just locking them up, feeding and clothing them.

Reform is a difficult problem, and tailored punishment may be easy (and fun) in principle but we can leave that for another discussion.  If society feels justified in taking away the freedom of convicts, why can’t it profitably employ them?

Evidently government cannot profit from slave labor, but surely for-profit enterprises can.  There has been a lot of criticism of “for-profit prisons,” but those are not what I have in mind.  For-profit prisons simply try to do in a more cost-effective manner what government prisons do, which is to confine and care for large populations of criminals. They are not permitted to exploit prisoners as slave labor.

Unfortunately, twentieth-century Russian Communists gave penal labor a bad name (“Gulag”).  But that doesn’t mean that a more open and capitalist society like ours can’t profit from prisoners within reasonable bounds of justice.

Gregory touches on another issue that has probably increased our reluctance to exploit prisoners, which is the fact that so many of them hardly merit imprisonment:

What’s worse, most people incarcerated should not be. A quarter of the inmates are locked up for non-violent drug offenses. They committed no act of violence against anyone’s person or property, and their imprisonment is part of a destructive drug policy that has boosted crime, trashed civil liberties, uprooted the social order and corrupted the whole legal system. Many others are in prison for other non-violent offenses against the state—unapproved gun ownership, tax evasion, and so forth.

Open Question: What would it take to begin sending convicts to private, for-profit restitution centers where they could be subject to forced labor? Does that require constitutional changes? Legislative changes? Or could judges simply begin to sentence prisoners to serve time in private penal labor institutions instead of the public prisons?



1. federalist - February 26, 2009

Best of the Web today highlights renewed complaints about the expense of the death penalty. Why not defray those costs by revoking all human rights of convicts under signed death warrants? Before the state goes through the trouble of actually carrying out an execution, subject the doomed man to competitive bidding by anyone who wants to use the human animal for any purpose, including degrading, destructive, or potentially lethal tests or abuse. After all, once society has concluded irrevocably that an individual has forfeited all of his rights, including his right to life, why does that convict enjoy the right to leave the enormous cost not only of his crimes but also of his prosecution and sentence on his victims?

2. federalist - July 2, 2009

Bruce Benson’s book “To Serve and Protect” addresses these questions.

[A]n effective system should have victim restitution, rather than criminal punishment, as its primary focus. Victims advocacy groups should be made more aware of policy changes that would help realize this goal, including privatized collections, allowing private arbitrators to deal with criminal cases by determining restitution awards, and expanding the market for prison labor to not only cover operating expenses, but to increase restitution awards.

For instance, prior to prosecution, most Japanese criminals bargain with their victim through a mediator, and offer to pay restitution so that the victim will not demand further punishment. Few offenders receive government imposed penalties on top of their restitution, yet criminal offenses are substantially lower than in any other industrialized country, and Japan remains the only country whose crime rates have fallen continuously since World War II.

3. federalist - July 24, 2009

The New York Assembly considers a “Madoff” bill to make wealthy prisoners pay for the cost of incarcerating them. But Robert Frank notes:

Yet it also could be argued that citizens shouldn’t be punished in the eyes of the law for being wealthier. Presumably they have paid for their crimes — often with monetary settlements — so any additional payment could seem more like financial revenge.

Paying your own way prison also isn’t likely to be a meaningful, added deterrent. Picture tomorrow’s fraudster thinking, “Boy, this Ponzi scheme could land me in prison. But at least I don’t have to pay for it!”

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