Ruminations, August 18, 2013
Minimum thought went into Holder’s position on eliminating minimum sentences
-- U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has come up with a new way to save money: reduce prison sentences and free prisoners. Not all prisoners, mind you, just a large number of them. This is likely to open up a new debate.
Purpose of incarceration. Prisons serve three functions for society: they deter crime, they punish offenders and they protect society.
It is widely accepted in world societies that punishment deters crime to some degree. There is controversy as to whether specific punishments serve as more of a deterrent than others (e.g., capital punishment vs. life imprisonment) but in general, prison sentences are agreed upon as a deterrent.
A corollary to the deterrence principle is marginal deterrence. Marginal deterrence is accepted as an important component of punishment: more severe crimes require more severe punishment. The theory holds that if a severe crime yields the same punishment as a minor crime, then the perpetrator, who may have committed a minor crime, may decide to go to the extreme of the more severe crime, since punishment will be no worse.
Punishment or retribution is related to deterrence. In this case, society punished the perpetrator for violating its laws.
Protecting society through incarceration is the issue in focus. While incarcerated, the perpetrators will not commit any more crimes against society. As more and more people have been locked up, the crime rate has dropped and society has been safer.
The price of incarceration. The crux of the problem is that incarceration is expensive. With federal, state and city budgets being strained, government officials have been looking at ways to save money and have looked at prisons. In California, the situation has been exacerbated by a court ruling that the state’s prisons are overcrowded and prisoners (the least violent) must be released. (California could probably find a simple way to keep those prisoners incarcerated if they wanted to do so; they could ship them to prisons in other states. The International Centre for Prison Studies tells us that the U.S. prison system is at 99 percent capacity so there is still a little room.)
How much does it cost? The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the cost at $74 billion for 2007. The average cost per inmate ranges from $13,000 in Louisiana to almost $50,000 in
California, with federal inmates costing an average of $25,000; the average across the board is $30,000. The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that the cumulative effect of states reducing their prisons populations will save maybe a billion dollars a year.
Part of that cost comes from medical costs, and most of which is incurred by older inmates. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that a bill that will be brought to the Illinois state legislature to parole older inmates providing that they are at least 50 years old and have served at least 25 years in prison. Older prisoners can cost Illinois as much as $75,000 a year for medical care. While this looks good, isn’t it merely a case of cost shifting? Won’t these older parolees end up shifting their medical costs to Medicare or being subsidized through the Affordable Care Act’s state insurance exchanges? The taxpayer will still pay.
The price of not incarcerating. We don’t really know what deterrence is worth but there are estimates of the cost of recidivism.
The Associate Press reports that more than “40 percent of ex-cons commit crimes within three years of their release.” Of course, that is the number of crimes we know about and for which we re-arrest the ex-cons. Given the high known recidivism rate, it would seem that the actual rate would be much higher.
Pew collected data from 41 states in 2004 and concluded that if those states could cut the known recidivism rate by 10 percent, they could save $635 million. Projecting that figure across 50 states would bring it close to $800 million – and that’s 10 percent. One hundred percent of the recidivism would be $8 billion per year. And remember: these ex-cons are those deemed to be the least dangerous; reducing the prison population further will mean releasing the next most dangerous group.
Race. One factor that makes this issue more sensitive is race. Blacks make up a higher percentage of the prison population (over 39 percent) than their representation in the general population (13 percent). Some attribute this fact to racism and it is often used as an argument for the early release of prisoners.
Yet, we know that a disproportionate percentage of crime is perpetrated by black criminals on black victims. For example, over 24 percent of simple assault victims were black -- and 55 percent of gun homicide victims in 2010 were black (Pew) and 93 percent of the shooters were black.
It would seem that to make the black community safer, an early release program is one of the last things we should consider.
Drugs. Holder has suggested that prisons consider early release for those charged with drug possession. While drugs are illegal, a significant number of people are using drugs. Does Holder believe that a reduction in penalties will have no effect? Does he believe that fewer people will abuse drugs?
Perhaps Holder is unaware of plea-bargaining. Better than 90 percent of convictions are plea-bargains where the person charged pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for the expense of a trial. That means that many of those sentenced to minor drug charges are really guilty of a more serious crime and by reducing the charge and the sentence (as Holder proposes) we will be releasing more serious criminals,
Let’s take it a step further. Heroin use, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, had tripled in the past 15 years and continues to grow. The predominant source of heroin is the poppy fields in Afghanistan and among the prime financial beneficiaries are the Taliban. If you were to make a small cassh contribution through a middleman that made its way into the Taliban coffers, don’t you think that you might be subject to arrest and imprisonment for aiding the enemy? What is the net difference between that and buying a small amount of heroin for personal use?
Maybe Holder hasn’t thought this through.
Conclusion. Given the high costs of incarceration, it is reasonable to investigate the issue for potential savings. But we need to examine it with consideration of the effects of cutting the program. “We cannot,” said Holder, "we simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation." Au contraire, Mr. Attorney General; through the incarceration law breakers, that is just what we have done.
Maybe we should examine the prison program in Louisiana since their program is less that half the national average.
Perhaps we should trade-off the potential savings in early release against the potential costs. Maybe we should add to the cost of higher crime the cost individuals take to protect themselves through purchasing alarm systems, purchasing guns, and hiring more police. Maybe we should take into consideration the psychic cost of feeling more threatened. Maybe we should consider that one of the basic functions of government is to provide for the safety of its citizenry.
Maybe Holder should rethink his position.
Quote without comment
New Hampshire prosecutor Jim Reams, president of the National District Attorneys’ Association, said in a statement to the Associated Press last week: "The assumption is that these are all choir boys at the prison and if we let them out, all will be well. And it doesn't work that way. We're getting exactly what we deserve when we do this -- we're getting more crime."