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February 21, 2013

"Defunding State Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now on SSRN authored by W. David Ball. Here is the abstract:

Local agencies drive criminal justice policy, but states pick up the tab for policy choices that result in state imprisonment.  This distorts local policies and may actually contribute to increased state prison populations, since prison is effectively “free” to the local decisionmakers who send inmates there.  This Article looks directly at the source of the “correctional free lunch” problem and proposes to end state funding for prisons. States would, instead, reallocate money spent on prisons to localities to use as they see fit — on enforcement, treatment, or even per-capita prison usage.  This would allow localities to retain their decision-making autonomy, but it would internalize the costs of those decisions.

Amusingly, in this post at Prawfs, Giovanna Shay describes David's work in this piece as part of the "Best Trilogy Since Star Wars."  That post explains the positive description this way:

Okay, that might be over-selling it just a bit.   But David Ball of Santa Clara recently has posted to SSRN the third in his trilogy of articles inspired by the California prison "realignment."...  In his three articles, David demonstrates that counties rely on state corrections facilities (and funding) to varying degrees, and makes proposals that he hopes could require counties to internalize the costs of their reliance on incarceration.... Whatever your ultimate assessment of David's proposals, this is one trilogy definitely worth checking out.  (I will spare you further Star Wars references).

February 21, 2013 at 09:54 AM | Permalink


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"Local agencies drive criminal justice policy, but states pick up the tab for policy choices that result in state imprisonment."

And here I thought that the "choices" that "result in state imprisonment" are, you know, choices like knocking over the gas station.

How silly! We should know by now that ONLY THE REST OF SOCIETY is responsible for imprisonment (state or any other kind). The behavior of the guy who commits the crime is verbotten territory so far as the allocation of responsibility goes.

Hey, but here's a radical idea anyway. Why don't we require incarcerated criminals to work to pay for their upkeep just like the rest of us have to work to pay for OUR upkeep?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 21, 2013 12:03:08 PM

Thanks as always, Doug, for the mention!

Bill, I'd be interested in your thoughts after you've read the article, but I think I've made a pretty compelling case that crime rates don't determine incarceration rates at the state level (see my article, Tough on Crime (on the State's Dime).

But you might also be interested in knowing that I discuss prison labor in the "second" part of the trilogy. Again, I'd be interested in your thoughts after you've engaged with the article. You might be surprised to find some areas of commonality--and I'm sure you no doubt realize that if I could present all the nuances of an argument in a single paragraph abstract, I wouldn't need to write a full article!

Posted by: W. David Ball | Feb 21, 2013 1:44:58 PM

Professor Ball-

I just read the second article ("Why Should States Pay for Prisons")--I thought it was excellent. I think any principled conservative would recognize the strength of your argument. Imagine a world where each locality decided what their teachers should be paid but salaries came out of state taxes--no one would think that's an efficient outcome, but that seems to be pretty much what we're doing with the penal system (before the inevitable objection, no, "mandatory guidelines" hardly changes anything here, because of the power of charging decisions, probation revocations, etc.). Indeed, the argument reminded me of this essay from libertarian economist Russell Roberts (http://www.invisibleheart.com/Iheart/PolicySirloin.html)

I'm not sure of the social science validity, but just eyeballing state incarceration rates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_incarceration_rate) it does seem like a lot of the lower ones are dominated by one city--Minnesota by Minneapolis (3.3M of 5.4M state pop), Massachusetts by Boston (4.4M of 6.6M). That's based on MSAs, so it's not perfect, but it seems like when a city picks up more of the bill, they're less likely to pay for the "top sirloin" of incarceration.

Posted by: dsfan | Feb 22, 2013 12:30:27 AM


Thanks so much for reading the article--and for the feedback. I actually think there's significant scope for bipartisan agreement on this, and there's an irony that localism and local choice would be seen as somehow liberal (when federalism, say, isn't). I think it's a fairly modest proposal to suggest that people pay for their choices, especially if those choices are different. That at least doesn't forbid them from making their choices.

And interesting analysis of population distribution. That's one problem of focusing on California--it's so atypical. But I'd certainly welcome analysis of other states with different population distribution, etc. To me, that goes hand in hand with understanding that crime is local: states, too, can vary.

Thanks again, DB

Posted by: W. David Ball | Feb 22, 2013 1:20:27 PM

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