Prison stats make another new record

I saw this from the New York Times yesterday. Originally I wanted to put up a post that asked the following question: For how long will America continue to set new records in the realm of incarceration and punishment trends without a serious call for social change? These record breaking new descriptions of the current prison crises come out year after year. Every year we break new boundaries and every year we exceed everywhere else. How long can this go on? I don’t think there’s a good answer for this question so I was hesitant to put up this post.
In the meantime I noticed Jeremy (via facebook) and Brian seem interested in the topic so I thought I’d comment on one point that Brian makes:

This understates the cost of prison because it does not factor into what the prisoners could add to the economy if they were gainfully employed. The actual costs to society are significantly higher than what is spent on prison.

While I think Brian’s intuition is right – the costs of prison are understated – I’m skeptical that this argument holds ground in the current debate. The traditional response to this claim is what’s called “the incapacitation effect.” In other words, if the costs of prisons are understated because those individuals would otherwise be productive in the economy, then the opposite may also be true. Inmates would be committing more crimes were they not incarcerated, thus the benefits of prisons may also be understated. At this point its an empirical question of one unknown counter factual scenario against another. The little available evidence that we do have often points to the fact that current inmates are better characterized as career criminals than they are one time offenders. Researchers are more likely to believe that the benefits of incapacitation are more understated (because of incapactiation) than the costs of a smaller labor pool are understated.
On net I still agree with the broader claim that the costs of prisons are understated but not because of the reasons above. Instead I think the greatest cost to prison is the debilitating effects that social provision of criminal justice has upon innovation and entrepreneurship in criminal justice.

A sensible quote then an oddity

Mathew O’keeffe (1989) wrote in Legal Notes No. 5 for the Libertarian Alliance some sensible conclusions as to the empirical results of the incentives promoted by retribution based criminal sentences:

The increase in criminality was matched by a decrease in apprehension; people were far less willing to “shop” their friends if they thought this would mean certain death. And the criminal himself was naturally far less likely to turn himself in, and, if caught, plead guilty. The juries themselves often chose to acquit a criminal rather than condemn him to an unfair punishment for a petty offense. The very great severity of punishments – in particular the irreversibility of the death sentence – led juries to be very cautious about their verdicts… The message is simple; the greater the punishment (“deterrent?”), the greater the crimes actually committed, the smaller the number of apprehensions, and the smaller the number of convictions.

Later sections of the article make me wonder if Walter Block ever used O’keeffe as a pen name:

[C]onvicted criminals could finance restitution by fighting to the death in televised gladiatorial combat or accepting roles in “snuff movies.” Robert Burrage (A Free Market in Human Organs, Economic Notes No. 10 Libertarian Alliance) has even made the suggestion that after death, the criminal’s body be reduced to spare parts and sold on the market! Perhaps the space age will offer less barbaric options; it could well offer a whole range of high pay, high risk, menial occupations. Criminals could be sent to work in perilous, frontier condition places to repay the more sizable restoration debts. A particularly attractive feature of this option would be that after a certain period away from earth, the effects of gravity on the body would be such that no criminal could ever live on earth again.

Empirical Puzzles of International Criminal Justice

I’m very excited about the current project I’m working on with fellow GMU student Diana Weinert. We are in the process of data to take stabs at some very interesting questions concerning the international use of prisons and criminal justice.
One of the two papers we’re working on, I hope to use for the third section of my dissertation. To what extent do state sponsored criminal justice systems suffer from rent-seeking and capture? We’re using prison populations, police expenditures, and populations for legislatures and judiciaries to develop proxies for the size of the corresponding criminal justice institutions in various countries. These are the underlying institutional variables that induce outcomes of two kinds.
Our intuition is that countries with larger criminal justice systems are correlated with larger state power, taxes, regulation, and the other complementary institutions of criminal justice. But size doesn’t always matter. Big institutions for criminal justice doesn’t necessarily mean quality institutions. We then look at the correlations between those foundational institutions and the actual social phenomenon they are claimed to promote: peace, prosperity, property rights, etc. Looking at a first few runs of correlations it looks like the relationships between big prisons, police forces, judges, and law makers are not negatively related to crime rates and functioning property rights but weekly related at best.
The data implies that larger criminal justice institutions are more correlated with large states than they are correlated with low crime rates.

When history defies what logic dictates…

Pete Boettke repeatedly drives this mantra into our heads. “When history defies what logic dictates,” that’s what makes a paper topic or a research project. Here are a few:
(1) The United States scores exceptionally on the Economic Freedom Index, this would imply a large role for free enterprise alongside a stable and reliable administration of justice. Yet at the same time, the US incarcerates more people than the world has ever known. A first response would be that the incarceration trend is in fact an integral foundation of the economic freedom, i.e. justice, law enforcement and secure property rights allow for economic freedom. But shouldn’t the ordering of the countries match for the top scorers on both economic freedom and prison populations if this were true?
in prison by country.png
(2) In the late 1980s economists and criminal justice researchers expected the 1990s to be a youth crime wave. Criminals were apparently harder and younger than in times past, yet in the US the 1990s were a time when violent crime plummeted. On the other hand the UK does not seem to be sharing the drop in crime. Culture and generational effects seem far less influential compared to policies, institutions and the incentives they create. What specific policies are driving the radically different crime rates observed in the economically similar US and UK settings? No I don’t think all the violent criminals in the US moved to the UK.
violent crime.png

Quote of the day

From page vii in the preface to Restitution to Victims of Crime by Stephen Shafer,

“The guilty man lodged, fed, clothed, warmed, lighted, entertained, at the expense of the State in a model cell, issued from it with a sum of money lawfully earned, has paid his debt to society; he can set his victims at defiance; but the victim has his consolation; he can think that by taxes he pays to the Treasury, he has contributed towards the paternal care, which has guarded the criminal during his stay in prison.” These were the bitter and sarcastic words of Prins, the Belgian, at the Paris Prison Congress in 1895, when during a discussion of the problem of restitution to victims of crime, he could no longer contain his indignation at various practical and theoretical difficulties raised against his proposals on behalf of the victim.

and on page 12:

History suggests that growing interest in the reformation of the criminal is matched by decreasing care for the victim.

Bob Higgs never fails to impress.

Taken from page 96 of Against Leviathan:

If the total incarcerated population were to continue to grow by 7.3 % annually, it would double approximately every ten years, whereas the total population, growing at 1 percent annually, would need some seventy years to double. Hence, in the decade of the 2080s, within the lifetime of many people already born, the prison population would overtake the total population, and the immigration barriers would have to be removed in order to let in enough foreigners to fill the cells. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine who will serve as guards.

Book Review of Changing the Gaurd

My book review of Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime came out today in the Journal of Libertarian Studies. I had all but forgotten about this publication, that I wrote 3 years ago or so, until I received page proofs this summer. Apparently, the PDF version of the issue is not yet released, but Roderick Long has posted a summary of the volume on the Mises blog and The Austro-Athenian Empire.

The yin and yang of punishment culture

Anyone wanting to comment on punishment after the 1970s has to begin with Michel Foucault. It seems like every book or article I read has to first contextualize their work with regard to Foucault and then move on from there.
Foucault was admittedly a strange cat. Aside from weird sexual practices he has often been criticized by sociologists, historians, and philosophers for his unorthodox methods of research and writing. I think the best way to get over these shortcomings in Foucault is to read him as he claimed to be; not a sociologist, a historian, or a philosopher, just a mere commentator. I’m tempted to put forth the claim that if Foucault were just getting started today he’d be a documentary film maker rather than a writer.
Another commentator who I’ve just recently come across is Anthony Daniels, penname Theodore Dalrymple. Dalrymple was a doctor in a British prison for several years before recently retiring but he has written several fascinating opinion editorials in The City Journal, The Spectator, and for The Manhattan Institute. His writings span several topics including crime, punishment, culture, and morality.
Anyone familiar with Foucault and Dalrymple both will notice several similarities between areas of interest, and their casual empiricism yet they are diametrically opposite on their cultural value scales. While Foucault was somewhat post-modern and deconstructivist in his attitudes towards social behaviors, Dalrymple is a staunch social conservative quick to point out the immaturity and vulgarity of modern cultural trends.
Below is an interview with Foucault in two parts:

And finally, here is a link to a Dalrymple interview. See for yourself the differently similar men behind society’s current view of punishment.

Does your research footnote to Charles Bronson?

As I was reading Punishing Criminals by Ernest van den Haag I was caught off guard by the following passage.

When the settlers in the American West deemed their legal authorities too weak to protect their property, they resorrted to “lynch justice” to punish, without the formalities of a trial, individuals thought to be guilty of cattle rustling or of other acts the settlers wanted to curb and for which they wanted retribution…Ineluctably, some sort of lynch system will appear, or reappear, wherever the legal system of the community is not effectively enforced. (Footnote: Vigilantes and informal rule-enforcing groups also may appear when the legal system enforces rules alien to the communal sense of justice. thus, the original Sicilian Mafia and the legendary Robin Hood.) In the United States lynch justice is as yet a fantasy. (Footnote: In the movie Death Wish [released in 1974], the hero, finding the law ineffective, becomes a one-man avenger of crime.)

That’s right, in plain text in the second footnote on page 13 Haag references Death Wish!!!