Prison budget blues

Today’s Los Angeles Times reports on the inevitable: people are starting to discuss reducing California’s bloated prison population (now about 160,000) as a way of dealing with the state’s budget crisis.

Some quick notes:

1. We have too many people in prison.

2. Most of the people in prison would not, if they were outside the walls, commit enough crimes in the course of a year to make it worthwhile to keep them inside at a cost of $25,000 each.

3. A few of the people in prison would, if they were outside the walls, commit so many (and so serious) crimes in the course of a year that it would be worth keeping them in at many times that cost.

4. It’s not easy to tell which is which just by looking at criminal histories and other easily available data, or by interviewing offenders. [Reporter to Robert McNamara: “Mr. Secretary, isn’t it true that half the Pentagon budget is completely wasted?” McNamara “Absolutely. My problem is, I don’t know which half.”]

5. Given the presence of that minority of really bad actors, on average imprisonment has direct crime-control benefits via incapacitation well in excess of its financial costs. (It also has indirect crime-control benefits via deterrence, and indirect crime-control costs via creating ex-prisoners, whose limited legitimate economic opportunities are likely to increase their future criminal activity. How those balance out is anyone’s guess.)

6. The financial costs of prison aren’t the most important costs. The reason to have fewer people in prison is that prisoners, and their intimates, suffer terribly. If someone has to suffer terribly, I’d rather have it be criminals than victims. But that doesn’t mean that the suffering of prisoners is something we don’t have to worry about.

7. The cost of keeping someone in prison for a day is about $70. The cost of a day’s parole supervision is about $3. The cost of a day’s probation supervision is $1. If we could design an intensive, high-cost form of community supervision (using drug testing, electronic position monitoring, etc., and with a very tight trigger on re-imprisonment for not obeying the rules) that reduced the criminal activity of someone subjected to it by 50% compared to no supervision at all, but only cost 20% of what a prison cell costs, that would be a more cost-effective approach to crime control than incarceration; we could have a smaller corrections budget and less crime. Oh, and we could have fewer human beings kept in cages.

8. Someone subject to that program would commit a rape-murder, and the political career of whoever developed the program would be all over.

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: