Post 4: Accounting for Mass Incarceration

Popular political wisdom now holds that mass incarceration is an issue that people from all sides of the political spectrum can get behind. Last month, the Center for American Progress hosted a bipartisan conference called “Smart on Crime,” a reference to Kamala Harris’s 2009 book. I think the phrase must predate the book, but I couldn’t find earlier references.

The logic goes like this: Democrats (we hope) see the racial injustice, barbaric prison conditions, and over-incarceration of our citizens compared to the world, plus the devastation wrought on people, families, and communities by incarceration and Republicans see an opportunity to cut spending.

I truly believe ending mass incarceration is one of the country’s most pressing problems and one of our most gruesome violations of human rights and dignity, not to mention an effective way of continuing to oppress poor and black/brown people, but I’m skeptical of the money-saving strategy. Don’t get me wrong – I’m excited that in the post The New Jim Crow era we’re able to debate the flaws in Michelle Alexander’s argument (mass incarceration is not primarily a drug problem) and the strategies for reform and/or abolition of prisons, and that prison abolition as entered the conversation at all. We just need to understand exactly what we’re dealing with, and the “ending mass incarceration benefits all of us taxpayers” isn’t going to bring us freedom.

There are three basic accounting reasons for this. First, as John Pfaff and Marie Gottschalk discuss, is the basic difference between average and marginal costs. Larry Krasner, the new DA of Philadelphia, has instructed his prosecutors to justify the cost of a jail stay, if they recommend incarceration, listing the financial cost of the sentence in their argument. They multiply the cost of keeping a person in a cage for a day by the number of days. This seems straightforward enough. However, the lion’s share of prison costs are not the marginal costs of this additional person, but rather the fixed costs, the largest of which (at least ⅔) is staff salaries. In order to effect large-scale savings, entire facilities need to close so that staffing and facilities cuts can be made.

Another accounting problem is that prisons cost a lot of money, but in the scale of our state and national budgets, they actually don’t. A few percent of a state budget pales in comparison to small tweaks in military spending, and other larger programs (such as corporate subsidies).

Finally, and most importantly, even if we’re still just talking in crude economic terms, the most important impact falls not on the taxpayer but on the incarcerated people themselves. What is the value of their lost earnings from time in prison? The welfare they will need with reduced labor market power? The physical and mental healthcare needs from the physical and mental deterioration caused by prison time? The costs of children separated from their parents? These costs, the real costs, don’t even register for our penny-pinching bipartisan dealmakers.


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