David R. Henderson  

Prison Sentences: Finally Some Good News

Tabarrok on the Ethics of Immi... You're Not Pushing Paper Acros...

One of the scariest facts about the United States is that our governments' rate of incarceration competes for the highest in the world. Why do I say, "competes for" rather than is? Because when a government forcibly keeps its citizens from leaving, one can argue, quite reasonably, that almost everyone in that country is a prisoner. I'm thinking specifically of North Korea and Cuba. But saying your government is better than that of North Korea's or Cuba's? That's a low bar.

Anyway, there's some good news here and, interestingly, it comes mainly from states with Republican lawmakers. It's from Neil King, Jr., "As Prisons Squeeze Budgets, GOP Rethinks Crime Focus," Wall Street Journal, June 21. One paragraph:

Georgia is the latest example of a Republican-led state drive to replace tough-on-crime dictums of the 1990s with a more forgiving and nuanced set of laws. Leading the charge in states such as Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina and South Dakota are GOP lawmakers--and in most cases Republican governors--who once favored stiff prison terms aimed at driving down crime.

Another excerpt:
The conservative quest to rethink criminal sentencing and rewrite state penal codes got its start in Texas, when GOP lawmakers in 2007 balked at the need to build three new prisons to house an anticipated 17,000 more prisoners by 2012. They decided instead to revamp the state's probation system and boost funding for addiction treatment and rehabilitation by $241 million.

The state prison population has declined by nearly 6,000 inmates since 2008 after decades of rapid growth and during a time when the state's own population has continued to swell. In 2011, Texas shut a prison for the first time in state history.

In Gainesville [Georgia], 427 would-be felons have graduated from Judge Deal's drug court since it began nearly a decade ago. Each went through a two-year program of mandatory employment or schooling, frequent drug tests and group counseling. The program costs around $13 a day per person, compared with $50 a day to feed and house a state prisoner. After their release, nearly a third of state prisoners end up committing another crime. The recidivism rate among drug-court graduates is just 8%, a recent state audit found.

And, finally, the public choice aspect, with a quote from the son of a friend of mine:
Supporters of the changes in Georgia and other states note that elected officials such as Gov. Deal have done little to publicize their efforts, much less campaign on them.

Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, sees that as a missed opportunity. "This is an area where Republicans can really connect with black voters," he said.

HT: Glenn Reynolds, The Instapundit.

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Ted Levy writes:

Well, the important point, of course, is that at least we got everyone's DNA...

MingoV writes:

It's damning that the main driving force behind rethinking punishment and prison terms is money. The federal government, with its immense capacity for borrowing, will not consider any reforms despite having some of the worst prisons in the nation.

I speculate that the state prison reforms are being led by republicans mostly because "only Nixon could go to China." Democrats who press for similar changes would be labeled as "soft on crime."

Foobarista writes:

One other element is prison guard unions have switched from being aligned with R's to D's in the past decade or so, so there's little "public choice" reason for R politicians to back prisons.

CC writes:

Foobarista: Why the switch from R to D?

MikeP writes:

That's not the argument he wants to make.

Professor Henderson's point is not to claim the US is as bad as North Korea or Cuba. It's to claim that the US incarceration rate of ~1% is among the highest in the world only if you don't consider that the incarceration rate of North Korea is effectively 100%.

Bostonian writes:

According to the Wikipedia article on incarceration in the U.S., "On June 30, 2006, an estimated 4.8% of black non-Hispanic men were in prison or jail, compared to 1.9% of Hispanic men of any race and 0.7% of white non-Hispanic men."

The U.S. could reduce its incarceration rate in the long run by reducing immigration by groups more likely to be jailed, but libertarians such as Henderson and Caplan support open borders.

Cryptomys writes:

I wouldn't be all that concerned with the prison guard unions. One problem is that the private prison industry, e.g. CCA, has become a lobbying and interest group, and they are aligned with the Republicans.

guthrie writes:


According to your own post, the group most likely jailed are 'black non-Hispanic men'. How is immigration policy even at issue here? Unless you advocating deporting black men...

Bostonian writes:


I am not talking about deporting legal residents but am saying that mass immigration of groups with higher crime rates or lower IQs than whites is a bad idea, since it will lead to the nation having a higher crime rate and a lower average IQ.

guthrie writes:


Your statement is still a non sequitur. Prof. Henderson's point is that conservatives, who typically favor heavy jail penalties – in particular for violating drug laws – appear to be reconsidering that tack. Of course, a far more effective strategy would be to de-criminalize drug use altogether, and focus on behavior with regard to others, as the touchstone for incarceration.

I am skeptical that relaxed immigration would affect incarceration rates very much at all. The fact is that a vast majority of immigrants (legal or otherwise) do nothing to harm others (citizens or otherwise).

Arthur_500 writes:

Incarceration serves several purposes. First it punishes the individual for infractions of societal norms. Secondly it provides a chance for rehabilitation. I would also add it offers society a chance to get vengeance.
Our efforts at rehabilitation have been an abject failure - mostly because of the cost of holding the hand of the released criminal. If a Pro Football player can't keep his act straight what can you expect from someone who comes from a bad home situation and gets out of prison to return to that same situation? Sometimes home is not the best answer.
Incarceration is expensive. Rehabilitation is probably even more expensive. Therefore we will have a yo-yo between punishment and cost limits that over-ride any intelligent thoughts on how to deal with miscreants in our society.

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