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February 11, 2009

One notable economist's reaction to the California prison litigation

In this column, famed economist Steven Levitt has these fascinating responses about the recent federal court "tentative opinion" calling for a massive reduction of California's prison population:

[A] prisoner’s rights group won a preliminary decision against the state of California’s prison system.  Consistent with my earlier [research], the lawsuit already seems to have had some impact on California’s prison population. For instance, in 2007 California’s prison population shrunk by about 1 percent, whereas the overall U.S. prison population grew by nearly 2 percent.  It will take a few years before a final court decision is handed down, but the likely outcome is that five or six years from now there will be 25,000 fewer inmates than there otherwise would have been.

What does this mean for crime?  If my estimates are correct, ultimately violent crime will be roughly 6 percent higher in California than it would have been absent the lawsuit.  That is roughly 150 extra homicides a year, 500 additional rapes, and 4,500 more robberies.

While those crime numbers sound bad, according to my estimates, letting out the prisoners is more or less a wash from a societal cost-benefit perspective.  The money we save from freeing the prisoners is on the same order of magnitude as the pain and suffering associated with the extra crime.

I do have one very specific policy recommendation to the state of California.  If they do a mass release of prisoners, it should be done with strings attached.  Namely, if the released prisoner gets convicted of a crime again in the future, his sentence the next time around should be whatever it normally would be plus all of the time that he should have served on his current sentence that gets cut short because of the early release.

This rule would strengthen the incentives for the ex-cons to stay straight.  Italy enforced such a policy after a mass release, and it appears to have been quite effective.

Some related prior posts:

February 11, 2009 at 11:33 AM | Permalink

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Comments

So Doug, since minorities would disproportionately be the victims of these released criminals, are you going to posit that the economist is racially insensitive?

Posted by: federalist | Feb 11, 2009 12:52:24 PM

First, the quotation doesn't make it clear, but the 6% increase in crime assumes a 15% reduction in incarceration in addition to small reductions in incarceration prior to a final judgment.

Second, the final recommendation made by Mr. Levitt, also doesn't ring true. He states: "I do have one very specific policy recommendation to the state of California. If they do a mass release of prisoners, it should be done with strings attached. Namely, if the released prisoner gets convicted of a crime again in the future, his sentence the next time around should be whatever it normally would be plus all of the time that he should have served on his current sentence that gets cut short because of the early release. This rule would strengthen the incentives for the ex-cons to stay straight. Italy enforced such a policy after a mass release, and it appears to have been quite effective."

The trouble with this analysis is that Italian prison sentences are much shorter than those of California in the first place for comparable crimes, and even more importantly, that California already has what are arguably the most draconian enhanced punishments for recidivist offenders in the United States through its very broad "three strikes and you're out" law and related statutes, while I am not aware that Italy has or has had anything comparable.

For a felon with two strikes already, nothing California can do can increase the incentive to not reoffend -- even shoplifting can produce life in prison without parole for a released felon with two strikes. For a released felon with one strike, the sentence faced on conviction for a second crime are still likely to be severe.

I don't disagree with Mr. Levitt that good incentives for released felons and appropriate management of re-entry issues are important. He simply suggestes the wrong incentives. Indeed, it is possible that in California, replacing "three strikes" with a law that restores some proportionality between the offense committed and the sentence in recidivist sentencing might actually improve incentives for released felons. If a two strikes felon faces two years in prison for merely shoplifting, but life in prison without parole for armed robbery, that felony still has a significant incentive to commit less serious, rather than more serious crimes that is absent under current law.

The most interesting incentive, of course, is the incentive that released California felons have to relocate. A released California two strike felon who stays in California and shoplifts faces life in prison without parole. A released California two strikes felon who does the same thing in Colorado is unlikely to be incarcerated for more than two years. California lawmakers, presumably, like this incentive structure, and indeed might even be so eager as to spell it out to released felons in the event of a mass release. This would dampen (although probably not eliminate) a surge in local crime rates, and if mass released inmates spread to the four wind across the nation, the impact on crime elsewhere might be small enough to be statistically invisible.

This effect might have escaped Mr. Levitt's prior research, because one would not expect this effect following a mass release of prisoners in a state without draconian sentences for repeat felons of the type found in California.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Feb 11, 2009 3:20:15 PM

"The most interesting incentive, of course, is the incentive that released California felons have to relocate."

That's an interesting bogyman. I wonder how many two-strikes felons actually do relocate out of state. My guess is not many.

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 12, 2009 12:44:25 AM

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