Monday, June 08, 2009

Econometric support for cutting prison populations

When Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein asked me to contribute a "Big Idea" for the magazine's May issue on the subject, I'd offered them this provocation, crafted from material in past Grits posts:
Texas should dramatically slash its prison population and eliminate a majority of felony crimes. We have criminalized too many different activities: Texas has 2,324 separate felonies on the books, including 11 involving oysters. From 1978 to 2008, Texas's population increased 80 percent, while the prison population increased 595 percent. If prison growth had matched population growth, around 40,000 would be in Texas prisons today - instead the number is about 155,000. Texas must stop trying to manage every social problem through the justice system and re-empower its civil courts and regulatory functions to handle more conflicts among citizens.
My suggestion for slashing the prison population was met in some quarters with derision. "WOW!! I could not disagree more with your opinions on this issue," opined one reader. A GOP legislative staffer at the capitol told me she was shocked to see me put my name on such "radical" views.

So I'm plesaed to be reading a new paper by UT-Austin LBJ School Professor Bill Spelman ("Crime, cash and limited options: Explaining the prison boom," Criminology & Public Policy, Vol. 8, No. 1., pp. 29-77, not online, see the abstract), confirming in laborious detail the mathematics behind the following calculation:
Estimates vary widely, but the marginal prison bed seems to prevent somewhtere between two and seven crimes, which saves potential victims between $4,000 and $19,000 per year.

"But note the details: If each prison bed reduces costs by no more than $19,000, but costs us $20,000 to $40,000, then do we need this many beds? Clearly not, and it's not (too) difficult to use current estimates of the crime-control effectiveness of prison, the costs of crime to victims and nonvictims, and the costs of prison to show that we overshot the mark sometime in the early 1990s. Enormous cutbacks - reductions of 50% or more in the prison popoulation - are not difficult to justify and would probably save the US public billions of dollars earch year. Certainly there is little economic justification for continuing to build.
The wide variation among estimates for crime costs prevented by prison make the cost-benefit analysis even dicier than that quote implies. $19,000 is the high end of estimated crime costs prevented by incarceration. If the true cost turns out to be closer to $4K, on the low end of the spectrum, then from an economic perpective overincarceration would seem abusrdly overemphasized.

Spelman's analytical work on this subject ranks among the most respected on all sides of the debate. And though I've quibbled with some of the assumptions in his work, including in this paper, on the whole there's really nobody out there whose approach is both as comprehensive and data driven as what he's producing. I'll be writing more about Spelman's findings soon, perhaps after talking to Bill about his paper, just to make sure I understand his math.

Prof. Spelman, incidentally, was previously on the Austin City Council and after a hiatus, was just re-elected to an open seat unopposed. Congrats, Bill!


Anonymous said...

Grits - since you've fallen in love with the 11 oyster felonies example, tell me how many people are in prison based on an oyster conviction. Thanks.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don't know offhand. If you find out, please tell us.

Anonymous said...

Grits is right. Texas is criminalization and prison crazy! Stupidly crazy!

Anonymous said...

How did he get from "marginal" to "each"?

RAS said...

This talk of average cost per felony and average cost per year for incarceratiuon is pretty much useless. How much does an oyster felon cost Texas with his crime? How much does it cost to convict him? Often the trial costs more than the prison time. If he isn't charged with a felony how many of his friends will be willing to risk a misdemeanor at how many thousands per trial per defendant. Not to mention the impact on the oysters.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

RAS - it's a wide range but that doesn't make it "useless." There are a range of estimates by people who've tried to quantify the costs of crime to society and even the highest don't justify expanded incarceration. Also, contrary to your statement, the cost per year for incarceration is actually a known amount.

To 5:20, I took that as talking about each marginal bed not being worth the cost.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, when Texas was building all the new prisons, all I heard was, "Look at the new jobs being made for people!". Well, look at the jobs now, there are people some of whom are just out of high school, some who need to be behind bars, and some who are just plain angry people and are there to make everyone's life miserable.

People who commit a crime against humanity are not in prison for other people to abuse, prison is the punishment and not what some person who has at some point in their life been mistreated by someone and now is out to make everyone miserable with them.

There are entirely too many people in prison and the Board of Pardons and Paroles is the worst section of the unjust Criminal Justice System. There are people on those boards who have no idea what they are doing and simply carry a grudge for something that happened to them at a point in their lives--very unhappy people and do not belong in positions where they determine the life of someone else. People do change and need to go home and resume or restart their lives. Just because of one mistake, they should not have to pay for that mistake for the rest of their life.

The Courts are only out for one thing, to win a case and be able to state that when that judge/DA comes up for re-election. There should be term limits for everyone who holds an elected position and then they should have to find another way to live and not off us.

I know some of you will disagree with me, but that is fine. I disagree with many of you and at times have to stop and just let my thoughts go through a process before I write, this was one of those times; but now I feel I have said exactly what I wished to say.

sunray's wench said...

@anon 10.11 ~ no disagreement from me.

Boyness said...

6/09/2009 10:11:00 AM


Anonymous said...

Grits & Grits Readers-

I read somewhere that there's a SB 1206 that is sitting on Governor Perry's desk awaiting his signature, to be vetoed, or neither making the bill effective Sept. 1. The bill from my understanding is supposed to help parole those inmates approved for parole after they have completed their required rehabilitative class instead of waiting until their "target date."

Would that not eleviate the overcrowding? Wouldn't this be a step in the right direction towards Texas doing something about the costs of incarceration?

Here's a link to the bill

Anonymous said...

Sent to the Governor 06/03/2009
(d-2) The range of dates specified by the parole panel under Subsection (d-1) may not begin earlier than the 45th day before any applicable release date established for the inmate and must be a range of at least 30 days.

Would help a little, now how to get more funding for the programs which have waiting lists.