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]