“Better, cheaper criminal justice”

Since Viriginia Postrel was kind enough to point people to this space for ideas about how California might deal with the hole our insanely expensive correctional system puts in the state budget, I suppose it’s time for a post on that topic. (Though this is the first time I’ve heard about a link drawing a post, rather than vice versa.)

Prison privatization turns out to be mostly a loser, though given the extraordinary extent to which California’s prison guards are overpaid, it might actually save some money here. In most states, the private outfits make their money by cherry-picking; they collect a fee based on the average cost of a prisoner, and figure out ways to select less-than-average-cost prisoners. The savings from avoiding union salaries and state paperwork are paid out in excessive executive compensation and bribes, leaving the taxpayer somewhat behind on the transaction.

That said, I’d like to see the development of a not-for-profit prision sector, with NGOs figuring out how to do a better job in reducing recidivism than the state system does.

But the secret to spending less on prison is having fewer people in prison. And the secret to doing that, without increasing crime, is to learn how to enforce parole conditions.

HOPE probation has demonstrated that even meth-using repeat offenders can and will stop doing meth if convincingly threatened with a brief but certain and immediate jail stay every time they get caught using, and that the result is to drastically shrink their new-offense rate and the number of days they spend behind bars.

With GPS position monitoring added to drug testing, parole could be 70% as effective as prison in preventing new crimes at 10% of the cost. My guess is that half of California’s prisoners could stay out, and mostly crime-free, under that system, and that many of the people now being sent to prison would do fine on a HOPE-style probation. Less crime, less suffering, lower prison budget.

Oh, yeah, and you’d turn some people’s lives around.

State Sen. Carol Liu has gotten behind the idea.

The bad news: it would probably take two years to get such a system running at scale, so it doesn’t do anything for the current crimes. The good news (sorta): the current crisis is going to last longer than two years.

Footnote: Texas has lower per-prisoner costs than California, not although it has a higher incarceration rate, but in part because it has a higher incarceration rate. If you incarcerate everyone in sight, your prisons are filled with relatively well-behaved people, who are cheap to manage.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com