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April 16, 2010

Did any Tea Party protests complain about wasteful criminal justice spending?

The title of this post is prompted in part by this press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which is headlined "On Tax Day, FAMM Tells Fiscal Watchdogs Not to Overlook Wasteful Prison Spending; Growing Population of Nonviolent Inmates Pushes BOP Budget over $6 Billion."  Here are excerpts:

Leading taxpayer advocates in Washington and across the states have begun speaking out about the high cost of misguided sentencing policies. In testimony before the House Judiciary’s Crime Subcommittee, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said, “Viewed through the skeptical eye I train on all other government programs, I have concluded that mandatory minimum sentencing policies are not worth the high cost to America’s taxpayers.”

At the same congressional hearing, David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union said, “Perhaps the most successful weapon in the budget hawk’s arsenal is cost-benefit analysis....Oddly, we have not always insisted on such analysis in criminal justice matters, including sentencing. We need to start.”

And, in two states where FAMM is leading reform efforts, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and Florida Tax Watch have both expressed support for cost-effective sentencing reforms.

As I have suggested in a number of prior posts, one would think that eventually some of the anti-government and anti-spending rhetoric coming from the folks in the Tea Party movement should prompt significant scrutiny of how much taxing and spending is done for a variety of (bloated?) state and federal criminal justice programs?

Some related older and more recent posts:

April 16, 2010 at 09:57 AM | Permalink


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To repeat the obvious for the eight zillionth time:

1. To make significant savings in government spending you have to go to where to significan dollars are being spent. That means entitlements and we all know it. All other social spending put together is a relative pittance.

2. If one wishes to ignore that controlling fact, then yes, there are aspects of prison spending one could look at: drug rehab, psychological services, counseling, family unifcaiton, vocational training, re-entry, employment assistance, etc. Would anyone here like to cut those? I wouldn't.

3. Or we could increase revenue. How about a 20% surtax on all lawyers with a predominantly criminal practice and who make more than $100,000?

4. We could also cap the amount given over to defense counsel for capital cases, which are by far the most expensive. The defense for acknowledged mass murderer Timmy McVeigh cost over $1,000,000 of taxpayer money. Let's cap the amount from now on at $500,000.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 16, 2010 10:34:51 AM

To make significant savings in government spending you have to go to where to significan dollars are being spent. That means entitlements and we all know it.

You also have to go where you can get the votes. Since the vast majority of citizens are untouched by the criminal justice system, reducing spending there (if you do it the right way) doesn’t irritate constituents anywhere near as much as if you cut their Social Security or Medicare.

We could also cap the amount given over to defense counsel for capital cases, which are by far the most expensive. The defense for acknowledged mass murderer Timmy McVeigh cost over $1,000,000 of taxpayer money. Let's cap the amount from now on at $500,000.

You could also not seek the death penalty on McVeigh, in which case the cost of his defense would have been even less than the $500,000 you are proposing. (The prosecution, I'm sure, would have been cheaper too.)

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Apr 16, 2010 10:57:10 AM

1. But tea partiers say 'don't touch my social security or medicare'. Actually they say ‘keep government out of my soc. sec. and med care’, which itself shows how much they know.

2. How about not imprisoning first time offenders with minimal risk of danger. Or utilizing home confinement more often? America is incarceration-nation. Better can be done.

3. Increase revenue by creating a new tax bracket, taxing personal income over $2 million at 40%. People who complain about taxes in America don't know the facts. Current-day taxes are one of the lowest they have ever been in America's history, and the U.S. has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. Individuals making muli-millons ever year pay less in taxes as a percentage of their total income than other Americans. It’s disgusting.

4. If you're going to chose to have capital cases, you have to fund them proportional to the severity of the government engaging in murder. $1 mil does not seem too out of line to me.

Posted by: Vincent G. | Apr 16, 2010 12:06:15 PM

Vincent G. --

This is what we should do if we actually want to save money and reduce the debt.

1. Curb entitlements. We can start by repealing the one just passed. Marc Shepherd correcty points out that curbing entitlements will be politically difficult, but that is not true as respects Obamacare. It did not enjoy majority support when it was passed and enjoys even less now, http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/current_events/healthcare/march_2010/health_care_law

2. Curb specifically the entitlement called Social Security. I am about at the age where I could start collecting. I volunteer here and now to have my check cut by 50%, so long as exactly the same cut is made to everyone else.

As to your assertion that, "Current-day taxes are one of the lowest they have ever been in America's history," well, not exactly. For most of America's history, the income tax rate was zero. That's because for most of America's history, there was no income tax at all. And for an even larger part of America's history, there was zero payroll tax.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 16, 2010 12:46:42 PM

I’m going to punt on Obamacare. As most of its provisions do not take effect for several years, its effect on the national debt remains speculative. Repealing it today might prevent the debt from getting worse a few years from now, but it won’t do anything about the current problem.

I commend Bill for being willing to forego 50 percent of his Social Security check, though I am not sure why he doesn’t go the whole way to 100 percent. Either the government is in the safety-net business, or it isn’t. Anyhow, I suspect that there are quite a few Democrats who would be delighted to run against Republicans who would offer such a proposal. It would be a nearly-sure way for Democrats to get back their filibuster-proof Senate majority.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Apr 16, 2010 1:08:56 PM

In Omaha, where I practice, the judges have fashioned a unique way to curb costs. All misdemeanor court appointed cases are capped at $100. An attempt to create a rule to this effect failed, but the practice prevails as it's well known that if you submit a bill higher than that, it will be your last court appointed case. The judge who advocated such a policy stated that enough lawyers volunteered to comply with the policy to make it workable. Apparently they were willing to reduce their bills without reducing their commitment to justice. Thus, if you face less than one year in jail (per charge, not per case!) and are appointed a private lawyer, that lawyer will earn $100.

See any problems with that scenario?

Posted by: David | Apr 16, 2010 1:45:07 PM

Bill's right if you're lucky enough to only pay federal taxes. If you happen to pay state or county taxes, though, criminal justice costs are a much greater proportion of the budget.

And as a corollary to his suggestion of cutting capital defense fees, just reducing the number of prosecutors employed would even more readily do the trick, saving both money from their salaries and throughout the system from reduced caseloads.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Apr 16, 2010 2:18:55 PM


I am not a supporter of the Tea Party movement but it seems to me that you do not get to set that movements' agenda.

Also, I endorse the revenue enhancement suggestion of Bill Otis regarding a 20% surtax on all lawyers with a predominately criminal practice. I'll even shield the first $250,000 of income.

Posted by: mjs | Apr 16, 2010 2:31:26 PM

If we assume the average cost of incarceration is $75 per inmate-day and an average jail and prison population of 2.4 million the annual cost of incarceration is about $66 billion. The distribution is $21.4 billion for jails, $36.0 billion for state prisons, $5.4 billion for federal prisons and $3.3 billion for other facilities including those for juveniles.

Several states have been able to slowly reduce their prison population over a period of five to ten years but the savings from reduced population are nearly offset by inflation so the result is their prison costs have been flat. I doubt that it is possible to reduce the prison population at a faster rate without overloading community based corrections. No doubt there will be a very strong push-back if a newly released prisoner is responsible for a "nasty surprise" so overloading CBC is bad public policy.

Jail costs are local and can amount to a large percentage of the county budget. The requirement that persons charged with an indictable misdemeanor be fingerprinted and photographed means a trip to the jail instead of a citation and release probably costs New York City an additional several million dollars in booking costs just for possession of a few ounces of pot. Please explain what the public safety benefits are from that policy.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 16, 2010 8:35:28 PM

If the criminal commits 100 crimes a year, with a value of $5000 in damages, then the return on investment in a $50,000 a year incarceration is 1000% a year, guaranteed, with no possibility of loss of capital. The value of the victim trauma, the deterrence of the victim from productive pursuits, the medical bills, the drop of surrounding real estate values are likely in $millions long term and the return on investment is likely in the millions of percents.

This false argument is to promote lawyer employment by loosing vicious predators.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 16, 2010 9:31:12 PM

SC, the highest credible estimates of the average cost in victim damages based on actual data (as opposed to hypotheticals you pulled out of your behind) run way below what you say. According to Bill Spelman, "Estimates vary widely, but the marginal prison bed seems to prevent somewhere between two and seven crimes, which saves potential victims between $4,000 and $19,000 per year."

He goes on to add:

"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 population - are not difficult to justify and would probably save the US public billions of dollars each year. Certainly there is little economic justification for continuing to build."

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Apr 17, 2010 7:20:29 AM

If one had to choose between Grits "credible" estimate and SC's estimate from his nether regions, most impartial observers would say SC is closer to the truth.

Spelman's methodology and conclusions appear to be result-oriented--his estimate of victim costs does not take into account a host of indirect costs attributable to crime: Higher insurance premiums; declines in housing values/urban flight;decline of mass transportation ridership; lower profits for neighborhood business; reduced economic development; etc.

Posted by: mjs | Apr 17, 2010 11:32:24 AM

i like this bill!

"4. We could also cap the amount given over to defense counsel for capital cases, which are by far the most expensive. The defense for acknowledged mass murderer Timmy McVeigh cost over $1,000,000 of taxpayer money. Let's cap the amount from now on at $500,000."

OF COURSE to make it an equal fight. the state must also be limited to that amount. which would also include the cost of any law enforcment work, tests, research, witnesses and the like.

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 18, 2010 2:51:27 PM

rodsmith --

I don't want, and the Constitution nowhere requires, an "equal fight." The Framers knew full well the obvious fact that the government will always be able to command more money than any individual litigant. The scales got balanced, well enough for the Framers and for me, by the requirement that the government bear the burden of proof BRD, and that absent the government's discharging that burden as to every element of the offense, and to the satisfaction of a unanimous jury, the defendant is presumed innocent and is to be set free.

Now to get back to the subject of this thread, which in Doug's words is "wasteful criminal justice spending": The notion that we should spend over a million dollars of tax money to help concoct a phony defense for Timmy McVeigh simply must define "wasteful criminal justice spending."

We do not have unlimited money. As I have said before, looking to the criminal justice system for savings is more than a little silly when we refuse to do anything to constrain what all agree is the main problem, namely, entitlements. That is the big thing we have no choice but to realize. If we are to persist in looking to the criminal justice system, however, lavishing money on a mass murderer whose factual guilt was never subject to rational doubt is nuts. Give him what's needed for a fair trial, sure. But a million plus dollars?

Nope. There are competing uses for that money, just about every one of them worthier than where it got spent.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 18, 2010 4:03:02 PM

Grits: This blog is open to children. I would appreciate your not using vulgarities here. The also make you look weak and cheap.

There are 23 million Index Felonies a year. There are about 2 million prosecutions a year. About 90% of crime goes unanswered. Say, a criminal put a gun to your head, and had personal assets. He only took your wallet, and no injury resulted. You were scared for 1 minute. If you sued this criminal, what would a jury award in torts? $19,000? An amount 10 times higher would be more acceptable to you. You undervalue the victimization of people with dark skins. They suffer and get upset by being jacked like that, as much as you do. The lib is the biggest racist there is. Next, you report the incident to the police, and it make the police blotter in the local paper. Someone is leafing through the paper to reach the Homes for Sale, and sees the police report. How much would the seller have to drop his price to persuade the buyer to still buy in the area, even if it a low crime area, usually? To most people, downtown areas are more valuable, being closer to work. In the US, thanks to crime and the lawyer, property is more expensive in the boondocks, again transferring massive value from the property of people with dark skins to that of people with white skin. Say the house was listed for $200,000. The buyer is unlikely to be tempted to buy it, after the armed robbery. for more than $120,000. So we are close to $300,000 in cost, for a crime with no harm. Imagine if the criminal had fired the weapon and hit a vital organ. What does 3 months in a Shock and Trauma Unit come to, and what wages would be lost, what welfare payments would have to be made to the victim's now fatherless family?

If we are finished adding things up, then multiply by 10, because only 1 in 10 major crimes is ever answered by the dumbass lawyer. The latter has basically nearly absolute immunity to the criminal, his client.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 18, 2010 9:32:28 PM

Bill, You realize that a lot of public defenders make more than $100,000, and thus have an exclusively criminal practice. Are you saying that you want them taxed more than prosecutors who are on similar or identical payscales?

Posted by: s.cotus | Apr 19, 2010 12:27:23 AM

s.cotus --

It's news to me that prosecutors don't have a "criminal practice."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 19, 2010 8:12:15 AM

I said earlier on this thread that McVeigh's defense cost taxpayers over a million dollars. This is technically correct but misleading. I just found a small piece in the June 30, 2001 NYT which states as follows: "The defense of Timothy J. McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing case cost taxpayers $13.8 million. Judge Richard P. Matsch of Federal District Court, who presided over Mr. McVeigh's trial in Denver, released the figures. Mr. McVeigh employed 19 lawyers."

We are scrounging around for money but spent a really fat fortune to help Timmy's NINETEEN LAWYERS concoct a phony defense.

Does anyone see something wrong with this picture?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 19, 2010 9:15:32 AM

I doubt that the total justice system costs plus property loss insurance payments would be less than $150 per month per capita.
That would total $540 billion where there are estimates as high as $1.2 trillion or $330 per month per capita. FWIW my guess is that the actual crime costs per capita are about $200 per month.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 19, 2010 9:55:56 AM

I'm surprised that Bill agrees that increasing revenue to pay for the criminal justice system should include taxing prosecutors. I'm not sure why civil lawyers shouldn't be taxed similarly to help fund the civil justice system, but I commend Bill for not differentiating between prosecutors and defense lawyers on the issue of funding the criminal justice system.

Posted by: public defender | Apr 19, 2010 4:30:16 PM

public defender --

I'm not promoting the idea of taxing either prosecutors or defense counsel. I am saying that, if one adopts the silly (in my view) notion that we should look to the criminal justice system for setting right the financial ship, that is one thing that would help. Ideally, if something like that were to be adopted as part of the solution, the tax would fall specifically on those who do the most to UNJUSTIFIABLY drive up public costs. That would include prosecutors who want to charge as sex offenders two 15 year-old's texting nudie pictures to each other; and defense counsel who put on some preposterous defense for someone they and everybody else in the courtroom knows is guilty (if not dangerous to boot).

We can no longer afford EITHER frivolous prosecutions OR frivolous defenses.

For that matter, I also propose -- and this I AM endorsing -- that when a case has to be re-done because of ineffective assistance of counsel, the maladroit lawyer be required to re-pay the public fisc for all the costs of the first trial which he botched. Indeed, this should be done whether money is tight or not.

The problem of course is that the criminal justice system is only a tiny fraction of social spending. The big dollar items are entitlements, and if you need big dollar savings, which we do, that's where you have to go. There is just no way around it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 19, 2010 8:10:20 PM

I would say funding wars is also a big dollar item. We could save a bundle there too.

Posted by: fiscal conservative | Apr 20, 2010 1:17:58 PM

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