James Q. Wilson, whose book Thinking about Crime set the national crime-control agenda for a generation, has been guest-blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy. I was especially glad to see Wilson’s endorsement of one of my favorite programs, the probation-supervision approach called Project HOPE.
Three other points invite some amplification.
In discussing incarceration for drug offenses, Wilson is right to point out that few people go to prison whose only offense is possessing illicit drugs; someone serving a term for “drug possession” probably pleaded down from a drug-dealing charge. But parolees are returned to prison for using drugs, which is not a very useful approach compared to HOPE-style brief jail stays.
In addition, about 700,000 people are arrested each year for simple possession of cannabis. Some are simply issued a ticket and let go, but many of them will spend time in jail awaiting arraignment: in New York City, for example, where there are 40,000 cannabis-possession arrests each year, any “custodial” arrest means about 36 hours in jail, and an arrest on a Friday generally means spending the weekend behind bars. Even a short jail stay can have catastrophic consequences, including sexual assault and suicide.
So while it’s not true that we’re cramming our prisons full of people who were just peacefully smoking on their water-pipes, neither is it true that being locked up for drug offenses is restricted to dealers.
Wilson also reflects on the benefits and costs of incarceration, using an approach pioneered by Ed Zedlewski: compare the costs of keeping someone in prison with the costs that person would otherwise impose by committing crimes. I think the cost of a prison cell is now higher, and the median offense rate among prisoners lower (as the prison population grows, the marginal prisoner is less active than the average prisoner) than Wilson’s analysis assumes, but on the other hand there are costs of crime (direct and external costs of crime avoidance behavior) far beyond the victimization losses he calculates.
Still, if we knew that the dollar cost to taxpayers of keeping a prisoner were less than the willingness-to-pay of crime victims and others to avoid the effects of having that person free, we still wouldn’t know that it was worthwhile spending that money to keep that person behind bars. A full analysis would include the cost to the prisoner, and to those who care about him, of incarceration: that is, the total willingness-to-pay to have him not incarcerated. And it would consider the opportunity cost of those prison dollars, and in particular whether some other approach might reduce crime at lower cost. Moreover, some of the crimes “prevented” by incarceration are probably merely deferred until the prisoner is released.
So I think Wilson is right to dismiss the argument that we “can’t afford” to build more prisons. But dismissing that argument isn’t the same as showing that the current level of incarceration is justified.
In addressing the incarceration of the mentally ill, Wilson attributes much of that problem to the de-institutionalization movement that closed the state mental hospitals and made involuntary commitment much harder. No doubt that is partly true, though many mentally ill prisoners don’t have the diagnoses (primarily schizophrenia) that accounted for the bulk of involuntary commitment.
In any case, there’s no legal reason to keep someone convicted of a crime who belongs in a mental hospital in prison or jail; nothing forbids the states from running locked-ward mental hospitals for convicted criminals who need hospitalization rather than incarceration. The Los Angles County jail, it has been said, is the largest mental hospital in the country. But that’s true not because of the legal rules about commitment, but because Los Angeles County has decided not to run a parallel institution for its mentally ill jail inmates.