Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Economics of Incarceration are Trumping the Politics of Incarceration

Letting Prisoners Out of Prisons May Be Good Policy - Huh?

Law and order is one of the best political positions one can take.  By law and order we mean of course the “lock em up and throw away the key’s" brand, not the "let’s try and implement policies and programs that will prevent crime or reduce the cost of criminal justice system".  Any politician who suggests that prison is an expensive and ineffective way to rehabilitate criminals is given the almost always fatal tag of “soft on crime”.

The power of economics is such that in some cases it can defeat the power of politics, and such is the situation in the great state of Michigan.  The state government of Michigan is probably third in the nation in terms of fiscal disaster, with only Illinois and California ahead of it (and no one is going to catch Illinois in terms of dire fiscal straits).  So the pressure is on these states to reduce costs, and the costs of operating prisons are huge.

So Michigan under a Democratic governor tried a new approach.  They found out that it is a lot cheaper to treat criminals outside of prison rather than in it, and the lack of funding made the program politically feasible.

As an inmate’s release date draws near, the reentry program’s focus shifts from assessing risk to managing the details of everyday life on the outside: Does he have a place to live? A social security number to get a job—and any prospects for a job? Newly released offenders get a ride from the prison to their next destination and bus fare to the parole office a few days later. If they are homeless, the housing authority finds them a temporary apartment. Those who are at the highest risk of returning to prison are assigned a “transition team” of case workers from various state agencies—housing, mental health, employment—who call or meet with them several times a week for up to seven months to monitor their progress. The former inmates are enrolled in classes—“Thinking Matters,” “Cage Your Rage”—that address frustrations common to ex-cons.

And in a rare case of common sense prevailing over political ideology, the Conservatives who now control Michigan are continuing the program.  Why, because of the money.  (Note:  the answer “because of the money” is a universal answer, it can be the answer to almost any question about behavior.)

The program isn’t cheap. Michigan spent $56 million tracking the progress of prisoners in fiscal year 2011. Yet that’s a fraction of the state’s $1.8 billion corrections budget, and with more people being released and fewer coming back, Michigan has been able to do something that’s often politically unfeasible elsewhere: close prisons. Since 2005, Michigan has shut down 21 correctional facilities—more than any other state—saving $315 million, according to government records. Supervising a paroled prisoner costs about $2,130 a year, vs. more than $34,000 to keep him locked up.

Everyone knows that massive incarceration does not work for rehabilitation, and that when the criminals get out of prison, if they have no support or supervision they commit crimes which send them back to prison.  And as far as criminals who are convicted of violent crimes are concerned, maybe they should never be let out of jail. 

But not every criminal, even those convicted of violent crimes are going to serve life sentences.  To treat released criminals as social welfare cases can be called coddling criminals, but it also turns out it can be called saving government money and preventing crime.  And if that can mean not raising taxes, well even
Conservatives will be converted.

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