Protecting public safety while reducing the prison headcount

Ross Douthat asks the right question about de-carceration: how to do it while protecting public safety. I offer an answer: swift-certain-fair community supervision.

Three things to like about Ross Douthat’s Sunday column on incarceration:

1.  He starts in the right place: the sheer scale and horror of mass incarceration, especially as practiced in this country. (Douthat is right: by any reasonable definition, SuperMax is torture.)

2. He acknowledges the key fact: there aren’t enough harmless prisoners that releasing them would solve the problem. If we want to get to civilized levels of incarceration we need to let out some seriously guilty and possibly dangerous people.  Just to get back to the U.S. historical level – already about 50% above European rates – we would have to let out four out of five current inmates. That means freeing large numbers of armed robbers, rapists, and murderers.

3. And he asks the right question: how to do that without ending our twenty-year winning streak in crime reduction.

Fortunately, I think there’s an answer to that question: learning to manage offenders without putting them behind bars. The key to that – and, it turns out, to de-brutalizing the institutions themselves – is a system of rules and sanctions based on swiftness, certainty, and fairness.

The evidence for success in swift-certain-fair community corrections is pouring in. The next step is to extend it to the currently imprisoned population through some form of graduated re-entry. Since that’s a new idea, we can’t be sure in advance how well it would work, or which version of it would work best in any given population. But once you ask the right question – how to reduce incarceration while improving public safety – you’re well on the road to finding the right answer.

Footnote Douthat makes the implicit assumption that keeping someone who might commit crime behind bars naturally tends to reduce crime. That would be true if incarceration didn’t have criminogenic side-effects, both at the individual-offender level and the community level. But in fact it does, and as the scale of incarceration grows the crime-control benefits shrink (since you’re locking up less and less dangerous prople) while the costs grow. Useem and Piehl estimate that in the median state the marginal prisoner somewhat increases the crime rate. If this is right, then the first slice of de-carceration won’t come at any cost in the form of increased crime even if it’s not coupled with improved community supervision. But that surely wouldn’t be true of making the reductions we actually need to make in the prison headcount.






Shorter Ross Douthat

All Popes are infallible, but reactionary Popes are more infallible than others.

Note especially two extraordinary claims:

* That what Douthat admits is a traditionalist minority deserves deference because of its energy. Apparently Douthat wants his faction to dominate the Church the way the Tea Party dominates the GOP.

* That it would be outrageous for Pope Francis to use the power of appointment to move the Church into the future in precisely the way his two predecessors used it to move the Church into the past.

Brad DeLong notes the historical falsity of the claim that the early modern church was prepared to lose England rather than compromise on the indissolubility of marriage. But it is worse than false: it is absurd. The granting of annulments to royal persons when politically convenient was no more controversial at the time than was granting dispensations from what otherwise would have been impediments to marriage (e.g., on grounds of consanguinity) for the same political reasons. When Louis VII of France decided he could no longer put up with Eleanor of Aquitaine – after 15 years of marriage, with two children – he had no problem getting their marriage annulled, to his own relief and to the delight of Eleanor and her lover Henry Plantagenet, soon to be King of England.

By Douthat’s announced standard – the Gospel teaching that a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery –  the marriage of Eleanor and Henry was adulterous, and their children therefore bastards. But of course no one would have suggested that at the time. Nor does anyone suggest that about the tens of thousands of Catholic couples each year who suddenly decide that their long-standing marriages were invalid from their inception and get a church tribunal to go along with that assertion. (In some cases, that decision is mutual, but in others it’s at the instance of one party or the other, sometimes against vigorous resistance of the other party.)

If you can read this explanation by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops without laughing out loud, your facial muscles are stronger than mine:

“Annulment” is an unfortunate word that is sometimes used to refer to a Catholic “declaration of nullity.” Actually, nothing is made null through the process. Rather, a Church tribunal (a Catholic church court) declares that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.

The document goes on to explain why the children of two people who were never married are nonetheless considered legitimate. It’s true: “With God, all things are possible.”


1. If you consider the practice of assigning children nasty labels based on the conduct of their parents outrageous, I’m with you all the way. But the Church has never repudiated the disgusting concept of bastardy, which unfortunately occurs in the Torah. It merely invents a way around it.

2. Having a somewhat game-theoretic way of looking at the world, I’m more sympathetic than most of my friends to the idea that marriage ought to be somewhat more difficult to escape from than it is, for example, in California under “no-fault divorce.” An easy out can easily lead to great injustice, usually against the woman.  And there are clear advantages to both parties in being able to plan as if the marriage would outlast at least any temporary and unilateral inclination to end it.

But that analysis doesn’t answer the question how much suffering it is desirable or justified to inflict on people who made a marital mistake and on their subsequent spouses and children. Douthat’s failure to mention the human costs of the current rigid policy suggests a certain hardness of heart. Perhaps he needs to meditate on the Sermon on the Mount.



“The late-Soviet Scenario”

Pope Francis made news with a sort-of-private phone call to an Argentine woman, whom he permitted to take communion despite her marriage to a divorced man.

Once again, the pope has thus committed another unauthorized act of commonsense humanity. Once again, modern-day Pharisees are disturbed by the pope’s self-authorized departure from ossified dogma. Once again, Ross Douthat is on the case, with his blend of implausibly stodgy conservatism and genuinely admirable analytic insight:  Continue reading ““The late-Soviet Scenario””

Ross Douthat on health care cost containment and innovation

“Trickle-down” is not the only way to finance health-care innovation.

Ross Douthat’s essay against “Medicaid for all” – which boils down to opposition to any form of health-care cost control other than loading the cost on the patients – drew praise from, inter alia, Rich Yeselson:

Millian. You fairly explicated your interlocutors’ best arguments before astutely rebutting them. A model essay.

Agreed as to the format: when Douthat is finished, you know what he wants, why he wants it, and what the stakes are.  In particular, he is frank in saying that his preferred alternative would continue to create great financial stress for the non-rich when they get sick.

Douthat makes two strong points:

1. It’s easy to waste money on health care that could be better spent on something else.

2. The much-maligned U.S. healthcare system does, or at least pays for, a massive amount of health-care innovation; the competing systems spend less money in part by free-riding. Cost controls here could slow innovation worldwide, at a high price in avoidable suffering. (This is the drum Megan McArdle keeps pounding.)

To #1, I would reply that lots of consumer spending is “wasted;” see Robert Frank’s Luxury Fever.  Both the intra-personal hedonic treadmill and the interpersonal process of Veblenian competitive expenditure greatly reduce the marginal welfare gain of a dollar moved from health-care spending to something else consumers (have been persuaded by marketers that they) want. I don’t think we have any reason to think that the marginal healthcare dollar buys less happiness than the marginal dollar spent on anything else; the opposite might easily be the case.

#2 – innovation – is a much more troubling point for fans of cost containment. But it’s a convincing point only if there’s no alternative to unchecked spending on healthcare for the rich as a means of financing innovation. Right now the National Institutes of Health spend approximately 1% of total (public-plus-private) healthcare costs. It’s hard for me to believe that we couldn’t save 10% in healthcare costs, put half of that into more research – thus sextupling the research budget – and get back much more innovation than we’d lose. (And that’s ignoring the possibility that we might ask other rich countries to contribute something to the process.)

Is there any reason to think that patents are really the right way to finance the development of new pharmaceuticals, imaging devices, and medical equipment? Seems radically implausible to me, given prizes and publicly financed development of innovations which are then put into the public domain as alternatives.

Even if the rest of Douthat’s argument were more convincing than I find it, his casual acceptance of widespread financial stress as an acceptable side-effect of an approach whose benefits  – as he admits – are mostly speculative, strikes me as somewhat hard-hearted.  Increasing inequality has made financial stress much more common than it used to be, even in the face of rising GDP per capita. Financial stress is bad for health, and even for effective IQ. It seems to me that the presumption against financial-stress-increasing policy choices ought to be fairly overwhelming.

All of that said, Yeselson (and Chris Hayes) are right. It’s good to have a conservative writer whom it’s possible to engage in serious policy debate.



Tallest midget Dep’t

Yes, the Republicans are eventually going to nominate the least implausible of their candidates, but only at the price of becoming far more implausible in the process.

Ross Douthat is right to say that the much-maligned Republican primary voters do seem to be resigned to nominating the last-implausible candidate from what he rightly calls “a roster of retreads, mediocrities, and cable-news candidates.” What he doesn’t mention is that, as the price for a plurality of their votes, Romney has been forced to become far more implausible than he was four years ago.

This is a party that desperately needs a decade or so in the wilderness.