Criminal Justice

Forget the Super-Rich, America's Bottom 1 Percent are Imprisoned and It's an Ethical and Fiscal Nightmare

|

The past year brought forth much talk of 99 percents and 1 percents and even though Occupy Wall Street's influence has waned, people as percentages is now firmly fixed in the lexicon, and the concerns of rich versus poor, and corporate versus personal will remain forever and ever amen, particularly in this post Mitt "47 percent" Romney era.

Anyway; Over at the Hoover Institution, Research Fellow David Henderson suggests that the percent to really worry about is indeed the 1 percent, but not the richest of the rich, but rather those at the bottom; that is to say, prisoners, who are the poorest of the poor and in the worst straits. 

Henderson estimates, based on U.S. prisoner numbers (2.2 million) and general population (314 million), that the former makes up three quarters of one percent of the population. That's a substantial number of folks to worry about, and when you add the five million more under "correctional supervision" the numbers become almost incomprehensible. They are, indeed, higher than the rest of the world's imprisoned. 

Henderson is keen on fixing things for prisoners in general. He is particularly concerned, though, about the folks who were imprisoned for consensual crimes including prostitution, drug, and gambling offenses. He even defends the choice behind drug selling (after all, drug dealers are merely providing a product that is in demand). Indeed, the subtitle of the piece hits it straight-on: "To lower taxes, free all prisoners who have committed victimless crimes."

And Henderson isn't just a big old softy who is worried about criminals, he's got some dollars and cents to back up his push for change. About the

top 1 percent who are getting such negative attention. In recent years, they have been paying over 25 percent of all federal taxes. That's all federal taxes, not just income taxes. In their textbook, Public Finance, Princeton University economist Harvey S. Rosen and Georgetown University economist Ted Gayer estimate that in 2005, the top 1 percent paid a whopping 27.6 percent of all federal taxes, including Social Security.

[…]

We hear the Occupy Wall Street people—and President Obama—advocate taxing the top 1 percent more. I've got a better idea: Let's tax the top 1 percent less and let a few hundred thousand of the bottom one percent out of prison—and out of poverty.

Henderson also  points to the human cost of California's famously draconian 1994 three-strikes law, which

 mandated that the third time someone was convicted of a felony, maybe even minor theft or drug crimes, they were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Previously efforts to overturn the law have failed in California, though Proposition 36, if it passes in November, will somewhat lessen its cruelty. The types of felonies where the punishment will stick, though, are still "violent or serious". As the LA Times noted, while endorsing the Proposition:

A third-striker whose prior convictions involved certain sex-, drug- or gun-related crimes would still get 25 to life even if the third offense wasn't serious or violent. And even those whose third offenses were nonviolent and didn't count as third strikes wouldn't get off easy — they would have to serve double the usual time for their latest offense. So, for example, a thief facing a third strike for a nonviolent crime that would usually merit a sentence of two to four years would instead get four to eight.

That leaves something to be desired still. 

There are other reasons for the staggering number of prisoners in America, including 170,000 in California alone. The disturbing power of the California Prison Guards' Union has been documented in the pages of Reason magazine by dot com Managing Editor Tim Cavanaugh. (Read the July, 2011 print issue, seriously.) Henderson's piece also notes that though the national cost per prisoner is $22,000 a year, in California each prisoner costs taxpayers $47,000 annually.

Even those less sympathetic prison folks, well, there's the question of what they will do when they get out of jail. Based on a 2002 study from the Economic Policy Institute, Henderson offers stats on what prisoners get paid while in jail: federal prisoners average $0.18 per hour, after deductions for housing and other expenses; state prisoners don't do much better, averaging a net wage of $0.72 an hour.

Why not, asks Henderson, let more private employees compete for more employment of prisoners? Even the ones that committed serious crimes of violence, theft, or fraud and who are getting out someday, would would benefit, as would taxpayers whose burden might be lighter. "With more employers competing for a fixed number of workers, wages would rise. Workers would be better off making money and retaining or acquiring skills. Employers would obviously be better off." 

But Henderson also loops back to this simplest form of fixing this national disaster, "People who are in prison for victimless crimes are poor mainly because the government has made them poor—by putting them in prison. There's a simple solution: Let them out of prison." Not realign them into probation or county jails, mind you, but let them out and maybe just stop sending them there for bad reasons in the first place.

Go check out the article, it's an excellent read that deftly mixes fiscal and moral concerns towards our prison industrial complex. The only time the piece gave me pause was when Henderson used this phrasing for a familiar libertarian critique: "Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush have admitted using illegal drugs. Would society have been better off if they had spent time in prison?"And the answer to that is, yes, probably. Either Bush and Obama would still be there, sparring us from their civil-liberties crushing, war-mongering presidencies; or they'd be out, and if they somehow had still won the executive hotseat, maybe their time behind bars would have given them some empathy, the sort that U.S. criminal justice sorely lacks.

[Hat tip to Instapundit for the Hoover Institution link]

NEXT: Nations Who Want Assad Out of Syria Don't Really Have a Plan

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Hopefully still first by the time I hit “submit”.

    Anyway I heart the prison industrial complex. It employes literally half of my idiot relatives in southern Illinois, who would just be collecting welfare and shooting soda cans off their porch otherwise. They live in a smattering of tiny hamlets with no real economies except welfare and the prison at Marion, and have no job skillz.

    1. Wouldn’t it be better for them to be collecting welfare and only taking money, not infringing liberty?

      1. I was being sarcastic. Yes, frankly I’d rather them just be collecting food stamps than working in a prison.

        What’s great is they belong to the prison guard union and they fill me in on all the ways they game the system to get extra overtime, all with the collusion of the managers.

        1. No offence, but prison guards are pretty much the scum of the earth. I had some trouble with a few one time, fucking scum to the core.

          1. None taken. My relatives are mostly uneducated rednecks. Glad I got the hell out and moved to Texas.

            1. Glad you threw that uneducated qualifier in there. I spend my days on a college campus and most of the people I interact with are dim bulbs compared to the people I grew up around in the mountains south of here.

              And if it helps I don’t like most of kin neither, so if you wanna take a potshot at ’em go ahead.

  2. They are, indeed, higher than the rest of the world’s imprisoned.

    ..combined?

    We have the military-industrial complex. We have the prison-drug war complex. We have the Wall Street-bailout complex. We have the government employee-pension complex. What else am I missing where a small number of people have figured out a racket to make a lot of money off of the rest of us or off of some kind of minority, foreign, or despised population using the force and violence of the government as the transferal agent?

    1. Environmental-whiner complex, victimology-snivler complex, social justice-foot stomper complex, race-husltling-shakedown complex, mortgage handout-deadbeat complex, etc, etc.

      1. Don’t forget the your-mom complex.

        1. You guys are giving me a complex.

          1. It’s a very complex situation.

        2. She said you forgot to tip this time.

          1. Just the tip?

              1. I won’t come in your mouth

            1. Actually, I need to borrow some cab fare

    2. Medical-industrial complex.

      And the Jimbo’s relatives-complex. There’s that too.

    3. To be fair, a lot of countries have secret prisons and much heavier utilization of capital punishment. We get screwed in a lot of “bad” categories by being an open society.

      1. Doesn’t change the fact that we have way more prisoners than any other first world nation. I don’t think Sweden has secret assassination squads and black sites.

        1. According to the wiki, 23% of Swedish prisoners are doing time for drug crimes.

          1. And…

            If you’d dig just a bit deeper you’d find out that in the land of the free it’s 57%.

            Also, sweden imprisons 79 out of every 100,000 prisoner whilst we are up to a fucking person per hundred. You do the math, Professor.

            1. 724 per 100000 for us.

              The point is, Sweden doesn’t have lax drug laws.

              1. The figure I gave includes jails, which with overcrowding have become equivalent to prisons. Our county, for instance, will incarcerate someone for up to two years in ACJ. Not to mention, that conditions are usually worse at local facilities then ‘upstate’.

                Also, I thought we were arguing that other nations’ prison stats were false and OUR GREAT NATION isn’t jailing its citizens at breakneck pace in comparison (cause OMG SECRET SWEDISH PRISONS). If you want to argue that the swedish stats are bogus go ahead and try, but as is they back up my point quite nicely.

              2. No. In many ways their drug laws are tougher than ours. If I have been properly informed, they can arrest you for failing a drug test.

  3. From the Hoover Institution linked above :

    This is cool

    They must have a nice library.

  4. Is that 170,000 prisons in California or prisoners? If there are 2.2 million prisoners in the U.S., the latter would make sense (since California is (very) roughly 10% of the U.S. population).

    1. Prisoners! Sorry!

      I mean, if there were that many prisons, maybe it would at least be roomier…

      1. Soon it will be prisons, I’m sure. Even if they are empty, the construction will create JOBZ!

        1. JERBS!

          1. derka durrrr!

      2. I’ll let it go …. this time ….

  5. Not seeing the problem here.

    /derp

  6. “Indeed, the subtle of the piece hits it straight-on: “To lower taxes, free all prisoners who have committed victimless crimes.””

    Not too subtle, but I’d bet it would make a good sub-title.

    1. Siiiiiiiiiiigh. That’s like the last sentence I added, so of course my brain was AWOL.

      Fixing, thanks.

      1. See how nice I am? I read the article first, and didn’t make a post pointing out all of your flaws, judging you…

        1. I don’t judge Lucie. I only judge her writing, her title selection, her misspelling of her first name, her choice of images, and her hometown.

          1. Tulpa Doom| 9.27.12 @ 8:19PM |#
            “I don’t judge Lucie….”

            Your spelling, OTOH…

            1. That’s how it’s supposed to be spelt.

              1. Tulpa Doom| 9.27.12 @ 8:24PM |#
                “That’s how it’s supposed to be spelt.”

                Oh, boy! I’ll bet you have fun correcting the spelling of the ball players on Monday night broadcasts.

                1. He’s way too busy playing grabass with his Tim Tebow mandoll on sunday nights to worry about spelling.

                  Pffft.

                  1. The TT flesh simulacrum got worn out at the horse ranch in June. Unless you have a perforated intestine fetish, I wouldn’t recommend it.

                    1. You usually get a new every year anyways. Who’s gonna be the lucky feller this year?

          2. Lucy with an ie?

            You’re a God damned communist.

            1. Naah.
              Just the supreme judge of how everything must be ‘spelt’. just ask him/her.

      2. Lucy Steigerwald| 9.27.12 @ 8:05PM |#
        “Siiiiiiiiiiigh. That’s like the last sentence I added, so of course my brain was AWOL.”

        Given the lack of an edit feature, I can be called on far worse than that. And you’re welcome to do so.

  7. Forget the Super-Rich, America’s Bottom 1 Percent are Imprisoned and It’s an Ethical and Fiscal Nightmare

    Good luck getting most of the left to pay anything other than brief lip service to this (and then only as a means of extracting votes from those related to the 2.2million prisoners).

    The sad reality is that the top 1% is a much easier target for scorn because it preys upon the scorn-bearer’s jealousy and contempt for those who have more than they.

  8. Counterfeiting and perjury on behalf of a criminal defendant are victimless crimes.

    1. Tulpa Doom| 9.27.12 @ 8:16PM |#
      “Counterfeiting and perjury on behalf of a criminal defendant are victimless crimes.”

      ^?

      1. He said he wants to release anyone who committed a victimless crime.

      2. Ignore the idiot.

        1. You too can be as insulated from opposing views as Warty. Just click on filter and make the heterodox monsters vanish leaving only the scent of pine.

          1. Tulpa Doom| 9.27.12 @ 9:05PM |#
            “You too can be as insulated from opposing views as Warty. Just click on filter and make the heterodox monsters vanish leaving only the scent of pine.”

            Sniff, sniff… Ah, the rancid odor of victimhood.
            Sorry, Tulpa, stooopid comment don’t make positions worthy of response.
            Post bullshit, expect to get called on bullshit. Repeat bullshit posts, expect to get ignored.

    2. Counterfeiting should only be a crime if you try to spend the money, as this would make it fraud. You’ve bee told this every time you raise your stoopid objection but you raise it nonetheless.

      And perjurers, fuck it, let ’em go. Why not?

      1. So you don’t mind when cops perjure themselvses on behalf of their brothers in blue in police brutality trials?

        And a sufficiently good counterfeit bill is worth just as much as one printed by the Treasury, so it’s not fraud.

        1. And a sufficiently good counterfeit bill is worth just as much as one printed by the Treasury, so it’s not fraud.

          Worth doesn’t matter in a fraud case, you knew that. And not that your statement makes any sense.

          So you don’t mind when cops perjure themselvses on behalf of their brothers in blue in police brutality trials?

          They go after those guy? News to me.

      2. Perjurers are arguably complicit in whatever crime the person they’re perjuring for did.

    3. Perjury maybe, but counterfeiting is fraud, which does have a victim, eventually (unless it is such a good job that no one ever notices).

  9. “Henderson estimates, based on U.S. prisoner numbers (2.2 million) and general population (314 million), that the former makes up three quarters of one percent of the population.”

    Hahahah, had to read this several times, because of course, “general population” is a prison term of art! Although, if the shoe fits…

  10. Lucy, why do you hate America?

  11. Let’s tax the top 1 percent less and let a few hundred thousand of the bottom one percent out of prison?and out of poverty.

    This presumes that anyone on the left actually gives a real shit about the poor.

    My hunch is that they’ll care more about screwing the wealthy to the wall than lifting a fucking finger to make the world a bit more just.

    1. Union pison jobs means mo money for the DNC. And isn’t that what’s really important.

      1. Prison guard unions and private prison suppliers/industry people will donate to whomever agrees to lock up more people. They give slightly more to Republicans, but will push for a democratic candidate if they are willing to lock up their constituents for bullshit ‘crimes’.

  12. I think walmart is crowded enough without letting more poor people out of prison.

  13. My heart can bear only so much, man.

  14. “In their textbook, Public Finance, Princeton University economist Harvey S. Rosen and Georgetown University economist Ted Gayer estimate that in 2005, the top 1 percent paid a whopping 27.6 percent of all federal taxes, including Social Security.”

    The thing is, their share of the national income in 2005 was about 23.5%. Which means that, for the top 1%, federal taxation is slightly progressive. And I think they can afford it. Next question, Lucy?

    PS Yes, let’s free all the people Dave wants to set free. The U.S. imprisons far too many people.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.