Thursday, 12 August 2010

Marginal deterrence for the incarcerated

The most sensible critique I've heard of National's Three Strikes policy for New Zealand is that the abolition of parole gets rid of marginal deterrence for inmates.  If time off for good behaviour is gone, then there's no incentive for good behaviour.  And that can be pretty costly.  Of course, this could be fixed by "added time on for bad behaviour", but it's pretty plausible that the administrative costs of the parole regime are a lot lower than the extra time when it comes to burden of proof issues.  An alternative framework would keep the Three Strikes law as it is, but add on an extra margin to all sentences that would be abated in case of good behaviour.

@CrimeEconomist points to some decent evidence favouring ensuring that there's always a margin.

"They said, 'Commissioner, you've got to get them something,'" recalls Epps. "'You've got these guys locked up in a cell, 80 square feet, with Plexi on the door. It's not air-conditioned. So when they shout out or hurt someone, what can you do?'"
After consulting with Sparkman, Epps decided the MDOC would try a different -- and deeply counterintuitive -- approach. It would respond to the worst outbreak of prison violence in recent history by loosening the controls on Unit 32. The inmates would be given a chance to return to the general prison population by displaying good behavior. Unit 32 would have group dining, recreational activities and even classes.
After all, says Sparkman, "What have we got to lose?"
 It worked.  And so too did their enhanced parole system.

By November, the change in attitudes and operations at Unit 32 was palpable. So was the improvement in relations between the MDOC and ACLU. In November, the MDOC entered into a supplemental consent decree with the group, this one focused on classification, mental illnesses and use of force. Austin and Kupers, who had first come to Unit 32 as expert witnesses for the plaintiffs, now effectively became consultants to the MDOC in improving conditions. It was clear that the effort to reform Unit 32 was on the cusp of becoming a major success. But instead of pausing to savor Unit 32's transformation, Epps pushed for something even more ambitious, changing the 1995 "truth in sentencing law" that had doubled Mississippi's incarceration rate and tripled its costs.
For help in the statehouse, Epps turned to Simmons, who introduced SB 2136, which made nonviolent offenders eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences. One of the law's unusual features was that it was retroactive: As written, some 3,000 inmates -- 12 percent of the state's prison population -- would become eligible for parole immediately, if the governor signed the bill -- which he did in April 2009.
Of course, eligibility for parole does not automatically result in inmates being granted parole. Those decisions resided with a state Parole Board, whose members were appointed by the governor. To ensure that the board increased its rate of parole, Epps turned once again to Austin, who developed a parole "risk instrument" based on a generation of peer-reviewed research about which inmates are likely to recidivate and which aren't. Previously parole members had relied mainly on their guts. With the new instrument in place, the parole grant rate soared, from roughly 30 percent to more than half. As the result of the new law, between April 2009 and August 2009, 3,100 inmates were reduced early, with virtually no public notice and no controversy. Had the state Legislature not passed the bill that raised the parole rate, Austin estimates that state lawmakers would have had to add another 5,000 beds to the prison system over the course of the next decade, at a cost of around $200 million.

My best read of the evidence is that increased use of incarceration was responsible for the biggest part of the explainable part of the drop in crime rates in the US in the 1990s.  But there are lots and lots and lots of people in prison who don't need to be there.  The bang for the buck is in keeping locked up the habitual violent offenders and in ensuring that penalties for repeat violent offending are harsher than for first time offending.  But subjecting minor drug users and dealers to mandatory lengthy sentences is a good way of ramping up the costs of prison with no particular benefit for the folks paying to keep them in prison.


  1. This assumes policy is made on a rational basis. When it comes to policy such as this (well-publicised and likely to evoke strong emotion), it tends to be portrayed in emotive terms by proponents on either side, and is often less about what works and more about pushing one's view to the forefront. In this case, punishment is what's desired by its advocates, not better law or even outcomes (those are secondary to the goal). Evidence based policy, pfft. Not when short-term interests dominate and whoever's in power is unlikely to have to deal with the problems such poor policy creates.

  2. @Jive: Oh, I've never assumed policy is made rationally. I wish it were so, but I'd have a lot less to shout about on the blog were it the case.

  3. I guess the incentive for good behaviour doesn't need to be early parole. This could be substituted with other things inmates might value, perhaps longer visiting times with family, greater access to TV time, or self-improvement opportunities, stuff like that. Certainly I can see possible work-arounds that satisfy the public blood-lust for longer sentences, but at the same time provide a disincentive for disruptive behaviour.