Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Choosing incarceration

Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in a recent op-ed questions what the state could do about offenders who choose to go to prison or jail instead of partipcate in supervision programs that would require they change their behavior?

In such instances, not only are offenders more likely to commit crimes once they're out, but taxpayers get soaked to boot. Citing incarceration patterns in Harris County DWI cases and the recent story of a man who robbed a bank because he said he wanted to go to prison, Levin writes:
While drunk drivers and bank robbers may prefer prison, it is a raw deal for taxpayers. Probation costs about $2 a day, half of which is paid with offender fees. Meanwhile, prison in Texas costs $40 a day. Moreover, legislators will be asked to appropriate more than $400 million for three new prisons when they meet in January. Prisoners are the only Americans with a constitutional right to health care and square meals.

There are several solutions to this quandary. Prison can be toughened, but the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment has been broadly interpreted to preclude painful punishments. Intense manual labor programs are constitutional and could make prison more of a deterrent, but with Texas short 2,000 to 3,000 prison guards, supervision resources needed to run work programs are scarce.

Given that Bowers is 63, his case also raises the issue of geriatric prisoners. Inmates over 60 cost Texas more than three times other prisoners for health care, but have a recidivism rate that is less than a third of younger inmates. Prisoners are not eligible for Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, so state taxpayers bear the full cost of their health care. However, parolees can qualify for such benefits, even if they must live in a residential facility as a condition of parole.

Texas has a special needs program intended to release prisoners who are so old or frail that they pose little danger, but the program’s requirements are so strict that less than six percent of eligible offenders – 167 out of 2,821 – are actually released. The Comptroller’s office has recommended changing the requirement that inmates must be within six months of death to twelve months. More than 100 inmates die every year during the lengthy special needs application process. There are about 200 physically handicapped prisoners alone, mostly paraplegics and multiple-limb amputees.

We must also bolster programs such as probation that provide an alternative to prison for the least serious offenders.

Probation should be reformed so that it is a path to success, not a trap that leads offenders to select prison.
Prison not only isn't always the right punishment, for some it may not actually be the harshest one - learning to live straight in the real world is a more difficult task for some offenders than enduring regimented prison life.

A similarly paradoxical question arises from a story in Germany: Is prison still punishment for someone who wants to be there?
A 59-year-old German man who has spent the last 34 years in jail has turned down offers to be let out, an official said on Saturday.

"He rejected an offer to leave in 1992," Thomas Melzer, a spokesman for the Brandenburg state justice ministry, told Bild newspaper. "We can't do anything if someone sentenced to life in prison doesn't want to leave."

The man, identified only as Gerold H, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1972 when the area was part of communist East Germany.

This case raises another public policy conundrum: When incarceration is no longer punishment and nobody thinks the offender is a danger, what justifies the taxpayers' continued expense?

Our system has created some bizarre, irrational incentives when anyone would choose incarceration over freedom. From nearly any perspective it's a disservice to the taxpayers and leads to bad public safety outcomes because offenders are less likely to change their behavior.


Anonymous said...

I dont think anyone would WANT to go back to prison, but if they've been inside for long enough to lose their family connections and for the world to move on without them (what were you watching on TV 20 years ago? what were you eating? what car did you drive? ) then the outside must seem a very scary place compared to the relative familiarity of prison.

I'm not going to stop saying it: TDCJ need to work harder to maintain family links in any way possible and rehabilitate the offenders properly, and then maybe they wont keep seeing the same old faces.

Anonymous said...


Bologna sandwich=square meal.