Category Archives: Crime

Florida Senate Votes against Privatizing Prisons

Yesterday, the Florida state senate voted down a bill that would have privatized 27 of the state’s prisons. The shift was projected to save $16.5 million in a state with a $2 billion budget deficit. Theoretically, private prisons are projected to save money because they operate under a profit motive, putting them in a better place to find operating efficiencies compared to state run prisons.

While from a budgetary perspective prison privatization may make sense, the issue is not straightforward. Privatizing prisons creates an interest group that stands to profit from higher incarceration rates. The case of two Pennsylvania judges who accepted bribes from private prison interests in exchange for incarcerating 5,000 juvenile offenders, many of whom appeared in court for minor offenses without attorneys, brought light to this issue. Of course this illegal corruption does not represent the typical interaction between the justice system and private prisons, but does demonstrate the danger of crony capitalism in the industry.

In a paper for the Reason Foundation, Adrian Moore points out that prison interest groups are by no means exclusive to private prisons. Public sector employee unions also have incentives to grow their bureaucracy and protect their jobs by seeking harsher prison sentences. In Florida, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union representing public sector prison workers, played an important role in the defeat of the privatization bill. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association is perhaps the most studied public prison lobby. The CCPOA has made extensive contributions to both political campaigns and to groups that fight for harsher sentencing laws.

Aside from the complicated issues that special interests bring to the US prison system, it’s important to take a critical look at the alleged budget savings that private prisons provide. While these prisons are privately run, they of course are not really private businesses, but rather government contractors. This means a layer of bureaucracy separates them from their consumers (taxpayers) and the market process is not in play as it is in a competitive industry. Rather than having an incentive to provide the best service at the least cost, private prisons face incentives to fulfill the most lucrative government contracts at least cost.

Some studies, including Moore’s, have attributed substantial cost savings to prison privatization, but other studies have found the opposite. In Arizona, private prisons actually cost more per inmate than public prisons, according to state data, even though they do not typically house the highest security, most expensive inmates that state-run prisons do.

Florida Governor Rick Scott still has the opportunity to use his executive power to increase the role of private prisons in Florida but said he had wanted legislative support for the measure. While the budgetary and policy impacts of privatizing prisons are ambiguous, one policy change would bring certain cost savings to Florida taxpayers. By some measures, Florida currently has the strictest laws against marijuana possession in the country, including potential jail time for possession of misdemeanor quantities of the drug. By reducing sentencing for victimless crimes including possession and distribution of marijuana, the state could certainly save money and potentially improve outcomes for the states youth who face drug charges.

Economists Agree – Illegality Increases the Street Price of Drugs

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business launched a website earlier this year titled The Initiative on Global Markets. The purpose of this website is to explore the extent to which economists agree or disagree on some of the major debates in the public policy arena. Specifically, 40 economists respond to a policy related question each week and their answers are then posted on the website.

In describing the process behind choosing the panel, the website states:

our panel was chosen to include distinguished experts with a keen interest in public policy from the major areas of economics, to be geographically diverse, and to include Democrats, Republicans and Independents as well as older and younger scholars. The panel members are all senior faculty at the most elite research universities in the United States.

This week’s question was

All else equal, making drugs illegal raises street prices for those drugs because suppliers require extra compensation for the risk of incarceration and other punishments.

93 percent of the economists on the panel either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement. Berkeley Economist Aaron Edline commented that “Illegality leads to high prices and crime.”  MIT economist Richard Schmalensee said that the answer to this question is “Basic micro” and that “Illegality also rules out some efficient forms of production & distribution.”

Other topics the questions have covered include treasury holdings, federal tax rates, voucher programs in the education system, exchange rates, stock prices, “buying American,” and healthcare.

Overall, I think this website provides a unique opportunity see where top economists stand on some important policy issues. It will be interesting to follow their answers to these weekly questions.


Robbing Taxpayers to Pay the Bondsman

While the bail bondsmen’s lobby generally receives little attention, they are using political clout to further their interests at great expense to taxpayers across the country.

Advances in GPS technology have allowed judges the option to release non-violent suspected criminals before their trials, wearing ankle bracelets to keep track of their whereabouts. Pretrial release programs can save localities millions of dollars annually compared to the cost of holding suspects in prison. Pretrial release also allows citizens to continue with their daily routines while they await trial and often prevents personal financial hardship as a result.

NPR’s Laura Sullivan reports:

It wasn’t just the money that made the program valuable. Three years ago, the Broward County jail was so full, a judge called the conditions unconstitutional.

Instead of building a new $70 million jail as they had proposed, county commissioners voted to expand pretrial release, letting more inmates out on supervised release. Within a year, the jail population plunged, so much so that the sheriff closed an entire wing. It saved taxpayers $20 million a year.

However, the program in Broward County, Florida was severely cut back after the bondsmen’s lobby pressured the commissioners to protect their profits:

According to campaign records… bondsmen spread almost $23,000 across the council in the year before the bill was passed. Fifteen bondsmen cut checks worth more than $5,000 to commissioner and now-county Mayor Ken Keechl just five days before the vote.

Aside from the expense to taxpayers that holding suspects before their trials imposes, another NPR story in the same series explains that releasing inmates on bail disadvantages low-income prisoners:

People with money get out. They go back to their jobs and their families, pay their bills and fight their cases. And according to the Justice Department and national studies, those with money face far fewer consequences for their crimes.

People without money stay in jail and are left to take whatever offer prosecutors feel like giving them.

DC Court of Appeals to Neighborhood: Drop Dead

In July 2009, a three-member panel of the federal court of appeals for the District of Columbia effectively ruled that well-off suburbanites are entitled to protect themselves from crime and other serious threats but residents of poor neighborhoods are not.

Gated communities have spread across the United States since the 1970s. By some estimates, more than 8 million residents lived in 20,000 gated communities in the late 1990s, and the numbers have increased rapidly since. Gated communities impose tight controls on neighborhood access, requiring non-residents seeking entry to show that they have a reasonable purpose.

As the federal appeals court acknowledged, a wave of “violence… has plagued the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast Washington, DC for many years.” Conditions had reached the point in early June 2008 that there had been 25 recent assaults involving firearms, resulting in 5 deaths. On May 31, 2008, the neighborhood experienced a triple homicide. If this had been the suburbs, the National Guard might have been called out.

Taking a page from the suburbs, the District of Columbia police department established (temporary) checkpoints on entry into the Trinidad neighborhood. While the program was in effect for several weeks, out of 951 vehicles seeking to enter, 48 were denied entry. One of the drivers sued, alleging her rights had been violated. A lower district court ruled for the city but the federal appeals court in Caneisha Mills v. District of Columbia overturned this decision. The appeals court decision was written by David Sentelle, a Reagan appointee in 1985. Presumably, he saw the case as an individual civil rights matter, even as he effectively dismissed the collective rights of the neighborhood residents to their own personal safety. Continue reading