Fiscal conservatism and mass incarceration

Newt Gingrich thinks that over-incarceration is wasteful government spending. Not the best reason to let people out of cells, but it has some political zing in the current environment.

I’ve been wondering when someone on the right would notice that excessive incarceration falls into the category “Wasteful Government Spending.” Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan have now made that argument. It’s by far the least important reason to shrink our outlandishly oversized prison population, but not by any means the least potent politically.

Response to Justice Alito about Prison Overcrowding in California

As the Supreme Court debates whether to force California to finally reduce overcrowding in its wretched prison system, Justice Alito asks “If 40,000 prisoners are going to be released…[do] you really believe that if you were to come back here two years after that you would be able to say they haven’t contributed to an increase in crime?”

As a resident of California, I know that releasing 40,000 prisoners en masse will results in some crimes in the community, and I fear that accordingly. But as someone who worked as an inspector of California prisons, I would suggest with respect that the Justice is framing the issue too narrowly.

Better comparative questions for the Court to ask would be as follows:

(1) “Are 40,000 prisoners who have served their sentence in a grossly overcrowded and inhumane prison system more likely to re-offend than are 40,000 prisoners who have served their sentence in adequately staffed and resourced prisons?”
(2) “If we had reduced the prison population by putting 40,000 low-risk people on their way to prison into high quality community correction systems instead, would the crime rate have been lower two years from now than it will after we have massed released 40,000 people who have spent years in grossly overcrowded, inhumane prisons?”.

By focusing only on the negative consequences of the unfortunate downstream decision the state may be forced to make, Justice Alito is overlooking the far more profound and ill-advised public policy decisions made upstream that put us in such evil case in the first place (and will do so again and again if we don’t move our analytical focus to that point in the policy stream).

Probation in Portland

It’s cheaper to watch offenders closely when they’re not in prison than it is to pay their room & board.

Peter Korn has a well-crafted story in the Portland Tribune about the travails of probation officers and the promise of quick and predictable sanctions. He quotes unnamed “experts” as claiming that Hawaii’s HOPE program is “expensive” and doubting that it can be taken to scale. In fact, the program saves five incarceration dollars for every supervision dollar it spends, and in Honolulu it’s already operating at scale.

Korn reports that Multnomah County is paying $8-$15 per day for electronic position monitoring. That’s way more expensive than it needs to be; using “passive” monitoring, where if the offender is out of position the fact is automatically reported to his probation officer the next day, a GPS anklet shouldn’t cost more than $4/day.

Did Public Employee Unions Cause the Collapse of the State?

Perhaps despite himself, David Brooks raises some good points about public sector sustainability in an otherwise-wretched column.

David Brooks thinks so:

New Jersey can’t afford to build its tunnel, but benefits packages for the state’s employees are 41 percent more expensive than those offered by the average Fortune 500 company. These benefits costs are rising by 16 percent a year.

New York City has to strain to finance its schools but must support 10,000 former cops who have retired before age 50.

California can’t afford new water projects, but state cops often receive 90 percent of their salaries when they retire at 50. The average corrections officer there makes $70,000 a year in base salary and $100,000 with overtime (California spends more on its prison system than on its schools).

One of the easiest ways to be a west coast blogger is to wait until 9 pm Pacific time, look at the dumb thing that Brooks has said today, and blog it.  But here, it’s a little more complicated.

On one level, Brooks’ piece is simply moronic.   For instance: 

1)  He simply claims that California “can’t afford” various projects, conveniently ignoring the fact that the famously dysfunctional California Legislature reached an agreement on building several of these projects.  He never really costs out any of his numbers: if New Jersey workers had pitifully low pensions like private companies, would that mean that the state suddenly would have been flush with cash?  You know the answer to that one.

2)  Nowhere in his argument will you find any discussion of the anti-tax hysteria that has infected the Republican Party: Saint Ronald Reagan’s first proposal upon being elected Governor in 1966 was to raise taxes to close a deficit. 

3)  He notes that California pays more for prisons than schools, but never mentions that a crucial reason for this is the conservative obsession with three-strikes laws. 

4)  Somehow, as a taxpayer I wouldn’t feel comforted to know either that 60-year-old cops are chasing criminals on the streets, or that we can’t recruit younger cops because the work is dangerous and they don’t get a pension. 

5)  And if you are really looking to see where state costs have skyrocketed, the answer is found in the Medicaid program; yet somehow, after hemming and hawing, Brooks could not bring himself to support the Affordable Care Act, the most ambitious attempt to control health care costs in US history, and a law in which states receive a 90% match for new Medicaid expenditures.

Yet I couldn’t bring myself to hate this column, because progressivism does have a problem with public employee unions.  Most famously, of course, are some teachers’ unions, such as the reactionary United Teachers Los Angeles, which has devoted most its energy to resisting the advance of public school accountability.

And that’s not all.  A friend of mine worked on the transition team for then-incoming Mayor Richard Riordan in 1993.  He’s a progressive Democrat.  His brief was the city’s Department of Water and Power.  And he learned that fully 25% of the Department’s budget was devoted to pension expenses.  It is all-too-common for public employees to retire at age 50, get a full pension, and then go into consulting on the same issues in which they previously worked (obviously, this applies to people such as engineers and the like, who work at DWP), essentially drawing two salaries.

At another state agency where I worked, I learned that we could not use hybrid vehicles for the agency’s cars, because the state mechnics’ union members didn’t know how to fix them, and didn’t want to learn.  So we were stuck with cars getting far less mileage, wasting at hundreds of thousands of dollars over the long term.

As the Yiddish proverb goes, “for instance isn’t proof.”  Or to put it another way: the plural of anecdote isn’t data.  But the aging of the population means that governments stand to have huge pension debts, which means less money for programs.  These aren’t idle fears (and of course they aren’t limited to the public sector, either, as Roger Lowenstein’s excellent book shows in both public and private contexts).  As much as I’d like to say that Brooks has once again wasted some of the most precious real estate in American journalism, I can’t.  At least not yet.  It will be interesting to see how observers who actually do know the numbers respond.

Note to wannabe-Governor Whitman

The way to spend less money on prisons is to have fewer prisoners.

Yes, California prisons are more expensive than they need to be. Good luck with reducing costs. Shipping prisoners to out-of-state for-profit prison firms is a good way of increasing your flow of campaign contributions, but generally not a good way of saving money: the for-profits are experts at “creaming” low-cost inmates while charging rates based on average cost, and “pro-business” Governors aren’t very good at driving hard bargains.

If you want to spend less money on prisons, you need to have fewer prisoners. That can be done – while also reducing crime – by doing a better job at enforcing the conditions of probation and parole.

Footnote In a previous post, I referred to Whitman as a “failed corporate bureaucrat.” That was unfair; I was thinking of Carly Fiorina. (Have you noticed that all rich Republican women politicians look alike?) I’m told that Whitman was a better-than-competent executive at eBay.

Moral theology bleg: Christianity and the death penalty

Why doesn’t the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery from John 8 imply that Christians should oppose capital punishment? I’m looking for authoritative answers from within the tradition.

I just spent an interesting hour talking with a Chinese magazine journalist about capital punishment, which apparently is a topic of debate in China. The journalist wanted to know about deterrence, and I said pretty much what I’ve said before: (1) there’s almost certainly some effect; (2) it might be offset by some people using the criminal justice system to carry out their suicide; (3) the quantitative stuff is inconclusive, because having the law is one thing and carrying it out is another; (4) US results, if we had them, might or might not tell us anything about China; (5) the death penalty for drug dealing is an especially bad idea because deterred and executed drug dealers are replaced; (6) the important effect of the death penalty is its effect (mostly noxious in my view) on the personnel of the criminal justice system, as illustrated by the fact that “death-qualified” juries are much more likely to convict. (Apparently the Taiwanese justice minister just quit because she developed scruples about signing death warrants; her replacement is probably more inclined toward being “tough on crime.”)

Having said all, that, I then said that the empirical and practical questions are properly secondary to the moral questions: whether you think execution is right shouldn’t depend all that strongly on whether you think it works. That’s when the conversation got interesting, and left me with a question I hope some reader can answer.
Continue reading “Moral theology bleg: Christianity and the death penalty”

Prisons without walls

Graeme Wood of The Atlantic gets it: the combination of drug-testing and position-monitoring technology with a swift, predictable sanctions process means that Bentham’s Panopticon no longer requires beds, walls, or guards.

Graeme Wood of The Atlantic gets it:  the combination of drug-testing and position-monitoring technology with a swift, predictable sanctions process means that Bentham’s Panopticon no longer requires beds, walls, or guards. Virtually any offender who is willing to play along can be adequately punished and incapacitated without entirely depriving him of liberty and without paying his room-and-board bill.  Wood is also aware that the whole thing could get ugly unless it’s managed with a sense of proportion.

Update Bay Area reporter Jude Joffre-Block wore an anklet for a week to find out what it was like.

State-level disparities in crack vs. powder cocaine sentences: Unfinished business

The effects of the federal crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity were well-documented at the federal level, but such assessments did not capture the damage inflicted in the states that adopted doppelganger legislation in the late 1980s. Collectively, the states imprison over six times as many people as does the federal government, making state-level reform essential in any effort to broadly implement more equitable incarceration policies.

Now that Congress and the Obama Administration have eliminated mandatory minimums for simple possession of crack and reduced the size of the powder-crack disparity substantially for dealing offenses, a window has opened for reformers to go back to state legislatures and ask them to copy the federal government again, only this time by reducing crack cocaine sentences rather than ramping them up. South Carolina has already done so, and I am informed that the changing federal landscape was one of the rationales successfully invoked by reformers to persuade the state to drop its own crack-powder disparity.

That leaves I believe, about 10 states with a bad law handed down from another era. I tried to make the case earlier this week that California is the most important to reform because of the size of its prison system. California gives a “bonus year in prison” for crack versus otherwise identical powder cocaine dealing convictions, which at the peak of the epidemic were meted out to over 2,000 people a year. My back of the envelope calculation is that dropping the crack penalty to the level of powder penalties in California would have an immediate effect of reducing imprisonment by about 6,000 total years (assuming retroactivity) in the first year, and then a further 1,200-1,800 years per year after that, depending on whether the crack epidemic continues to wane or kicks up again. At $40,000/year of incarceration, that’s roughly $60 million in savings for California annually.

It’s hard to work out the collective impact of reform in their rest of the states, because they passed different types of powder-crack disparities. But their collective overall population is more than California’s, so projecting another $60 million in reduced prison costs to spread around is quite conservative.

That said, the best reason for states to follow the federal reform is that the remaining laws are simply unjust, and would be so even if there were no financial savings to be realized from changing them (or for that matter even if it cost money to be rid of them). With the federal reform complete, and a zeitgeist of criminal justice reform blowing through the country, all of us who care about this issue should be descending on our state capitals to demand change.

Apples and baseballs

…are about the same size and shape. It’s an iron law of sound household management, ignore it at your peril, and I know you will recognize its absolute unvarying truth, that you can put a baseball in your fruitbowl only if you’re willing to take one apple out of it.

So what? Does any sane parent deny his kid a baseball  by saying “not until you eat one of those apples in the fruitbowl so we have room for it”?  Does anyone take room in the fruitbowl as a signal to go buy a baseball (or a hand grenade, or a powderpuff)?

Early childhood education at time t is inversely correlated with crime rates around t + (10-25); crime is part of a reasonable conversation about kindergarten.  But public higher education has little to do with crime, and how much government should spend on each is two (that is, 2, 10 in binary…do I make myself clear?) almost completely disconnected questions.  Not one, two.  If it’s worth spending X more tax money (using up X worth of economic resources) on colleges and universities, it’s because X will create more net value there than all the other ways it would be used, from bigger houses to wider roads to more-meat-and-less-bread in our diets, not because the waste Mark has documented in our corrections practice has about the same number of zeroes in it as X.  It’s worth it (or isn’t) if we’re overspending on prisons or underspending, or have it exactly right.  And not wasting Y isn’t a good idea because it’s about equal to X, but because waste is bad whether the savings are best spent on my salary and Mark’s or on something entirely different: Y can create more net value used in other ways, possibly including any of professing, skateboarding, eating more steak, and all the rest.

Education and prison spending are about the same size and shape, but they have as much to do with each other as apples and baseballs.  Spurious fruitbowl thinking is a rampant, pervasive bane of sound policymaking.  It is a dog’s breakfast of wrong ideas, sloppy language, and imitation common sense.  Let me list a few:

(1) Allowing a phrase like the state to slop back and forth between “the citizens who live and vote in California and their economy” and “the government they have elected” especially and most deplorably in phrases like “the state just can’t afford A”. A sentence like that with almost any A in it (decent schools, social services, public transit) is false.  If the state has the first meaning, it’s wrong simply because California is a rich jurisdiction even with 12% unemployment, and its people could perfectly well afford whatever A is without starving in the streets (the current California state deficit is less than $1000 per person; not chopped liver but nowhere near the “can’t afford” zone); if it has the second meaning, the whole sentence has to be restated as “Californians have chosen not to buy A for now, though they could if they wanted to.”

(2) Using “can’t afford”, as in the previous example, as a device to stop discussion.  “Need”  is an attempt at the same end: if you can get your pet project discussed as a need, it has to be funded, because that’s what need means.

(3) Budgeting from revenue.  Deciding which goods and services we want to get through private markets and which we want to run through the government system is one set of decisions, and deciding how much of each we want is another.  The government share of the total economy should be the result of those two, not a prior constraint.  Deciding how big the overall government budget should be and then parceling it out is simply nuts, like forcing a family’s purchases of round objects to fit in its current fruitbowl, or buying a tiny fruitbowl because it’s cheaper than a big one before you think about how to allocate the family diet across steak, bread, and apples. A family’s whole income creates a budget constraint, but not its housing expenditure, or apple spending.  And a government is not a family, or a business, despite hokey right-wing metaphors.

(4) Having baseballs by foregoing apples.  Why apples? There’s plenty of room for a baseball on the shelf in the hall closet. What I refer to here is ‘deals’ like the idea of tying the higher education budget to prison reform, and there is more of this around than you might think.  California’s Department of Fish and Game was originally funded by service charges to hunters and anglers, in the form of game licenses. Acceptable fees for these happened to be about equal to the predicted cost of the agency, and if you think protecting wildlife is a service specifically for people who like to kill and eat it, it made some sense.  But since that time, the legislature has assigned F & G a whole raft of important new duties, like managing wildlife reserves and dealing with oil spills in waterways, while demand for hunting and fishing has fallen steadily, but not appropriated funds to do its work because “F&G is funded by licenses”.  There’s no reason but ignorance to think the willingness of people to pay for hunting and fishing licenses measures the optimal level of F&G services now, but that’s the way we’re making those important decisions.   Another example is the 1930s  “deal” that funded rural fairs in the state with taxes from parimutuel betting at horse tracks. It looked at the time like a very clever political deal between conservative rural voters who didn’t like gambling and city slickers with loose morals, but the latter have pretty much lost interest in betting on horse races, at least where the horses actually are; maybe we should have smaller or fewer fairs, but that can’t be the reason, or even a reason.

(5) What is the sound of one scissor cutting? I despise Arnold Schwarzenegger (despite his pretty good environmental record) because he’s the poster boy for enabling infantile thinking in our electorate by never, to my knowledge, using the words taxes and services in the same paragraph…maybe even never in the same speech.  A general choice between a low-tax, low-service government (New Hampshire) or a high-tax, high-service government (Vermont) is a discussable, reasonable political issue.  But New Englanders understand that they can’t live in the middle of the Connecticut River; if you try to have high services and not pay for them, you drown in debt.  Arnold didn’t need his job, or its salary: of all people he could have told us the truth, but instead got elected deploring taxes tout court and has played the same game to the present day.  Of course higher taxes are bad and low taxes are good other things being equal, but this is an emotional, vacuous instinct (other things are never equal!), not a political principle.  No grownup buys a movie ticket instead of a car because it’s cheaper, nor turns down a purchase without knowing what it is because it costs more than nothing.

What the pug in Men in Black noticed about humans has some resonance here.  We tend to think something is bad if it costs a lot, but if it’s a good deal (creates a lot of value for us per dollar) that’s a reason to buy lots and lots of it.  Big spending on worthwhile things is a feature, not a bug!

The coincidence of how much less we spend on higher education and how much more we spend on prisons lately is  meaningless:  whether to spend more on education has nothing to do with whether we can squeeze savings out of the prisons, especially when the overall size of the budget is a completely absurd artifact of Republican cruelty, opportunism and defensive cowardice and ill-conceived constitutional choices like term limits, safe districts, and tax limitations.  Mark is right about the existence of good options for less, cheaper, and better imprisoning, but I wish he would eschew the conversation that embroils it with funding education, because that conversation legitimizes all sorts of bad practice and careless thinking down the line.

Saving California’s universities

There’s enough money in the prison budget to get it done. The trick is having fewer prisoners.

It’s true that California needs more tax revenue to pay for higher education, among the state’s many other needs. And yes, magical thinking by politicians gets old fast. But the Washington Monthly’s Daniel Luzer is wrong to say that we can’t fix the higher-ed problem out of savings on incarceration. We can, and should

As Luzer points out, we spend a ton of money on prisons partly because the guards are generously paid. But California also has a ton of prisoners: about five times as many, per capita, as the state had 35 years ago, when crime was higher than it is today. (Alas, that’s in line with national trends.)

Now that we understand how to punish people and control their behavior without paying their room-and-board bills, by enforcing the conditions of community corrections (probation and parole) with swift and certain, rather than severe, penalties for violations, California doesn’t need to have 170,000 state prison inmates. We could cut that number in half, while also reducing crime, by moving resources out of the prison system and into the community-corrections system.

Cutting the prison population in half would save about $2.5 billion per year. Half a billion of that would be ample to create a 21st-Century probation and parole system, with GPS monitoring in addition to random drug testing. Put another half a billion into police, courts, prosecution, and public defense, and you’ve still got $1.5 billion per year to split between the Cal State system and the UC system. That would undo the damage done during the current crisis, and then some. That would mean that UCLA could get back to the project of becoming one of the greatest universities in the world, rather than settling for being one of the best public universities in the country.

Whether Governor Brown could get it done is a different question. But California used to spend more money on college than it did on prison, and there’s no good reason not to restore that sensible priority ordering.