How to Fix Halfway Houses in Jersey: Stop Making More Criminals


War on Drugs

The New York Times has recently published a couple of articles about everything that is wrong with halfway houses in New Jersey. Their biggest problem, aside from being located in New Jersey, is that people are escaping from these privatized prison alternatives at an alarming rate, mostly due to a lack of funding and the necessity of cutting costs.

After decades of tough criminal justice policies, states have been grappling with crowded prisons that are straining budgets. In response to those pressures, New Jersey has become a leader in a national movement to save money by diverting inmates to a new kind of privately run halfway house.

The numbers are indisputable.The Times reports that 5,100 inmates have escaped from halfway houses since 2005, thanks to terrible security and crowded conditions.

In a fun op-ed published today, Paul Krugman mentioned that halfway houses often cut their budgets by skimping on labor costs. Surely he is right. He also makes note that minor criminals are often victimized at the hands of serious offenders in these institutions. 

"So let's see: Privatized prisons save money by employing fewer guards and other workers, and by paying them badly. And then we get horror stories about how these prisons are run. What a surprise!"

But while Krugman asserts that these problems will always exist in privatized prisons, the pro-liberty answer seems much less fatalistic—just stop making so many damn criminals.

Sentencing people for drug crimes and commercialized vice are handy ways to manufacture more criminals every day. As of 2009 in state prisons, 17.8 percent of all inmates were present because of drug-related charges, according to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics. In federal prisons in 2004, 54.1 percent of inmates were sentenced for drug offenses. And people wonder why prisons and halfway houses are low on resources. They have to hold exponentially more types and numbers of criminals than they should.

If private halfway houses are failing, it is only because they are forced to handle the absurdities of criminal law. Eliminating drug and victimless crimes would not only free up resources currently being spent on them, but presumably remove the risk of prison violence against most minor offenders. Of course, this would require an end to the War on Drugs. Which is going to happen any day now. Right?

For Reason's coverage of the War on Drugs, see here and here.