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Economic Outlook: Free College Education For All (Including Prison Inmates)

Taking the above quote to the extreme, defending something because it is “how we currently do it” is an even more “dangerous” way of thinking.

America’s public college and prison systems are currently flawed. Prison reform has gained traction because it is a cost saving measure. Providing free public higher education, as we used to do in this country, has not gained similar traction, because it would require additional funding.

There is an area where these two issues–prison reform and free higher education–intersect; offering college degree programs to prison inmates (which, again, used to be a much more common practice):

IN February, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced plans to underwrite college classes in 10 state prisons, building on the success of privately funded and widely praised programs like the Bard Prison Initiative. Mr. Cuomo pointed out that inmates who got an education had a much better chance of finding a job and were much less likely to menace their neighbors after release. He noted that the cost — $5,000 per inmate per year — would be a bargain compared with the $60,000 it costs to incarcerate a prisoner for a year. 

The punch lines of the opposing politicians (mostly Republicans, but some Democrats) all struck the same theme: How dare the governor offer taxpayer money to educate convicted criminals when decent citizens skimp and borrow to send their kids to college? “It should be ‘do the crime, do the time,’ not ‘do the crime, earn a degree,’ ” said George D. Maziarz, a state senator from western New York. “It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost.” In other words, let criminals be criminals.

The bureaucracies that run prisons are called departments of “corrections” for a reason. This is at least as important as the first two purposes, because nearly 95 percent of the incarcerated are eventually released back into society.

Alas, nearly half of those released are returned to prison within three years for committing new crimes. Clearly we are not doing a good job of “correcting.”

This is not a bleeding-heart cause. Leading conservatives and red-state politicians have supported prison college programs as a matter of public safety and fiscal prudence. A RAND meta-analysis of 58 studies concluded that inmates who participated in these programs were 43 percent less likely to return to a life of crime; even assuming that the most redeemable inmates are the likeliest to sign up, this is an incredible return on a modest investment.

Experts who have studied the American way of crime and punishment far longer than I have tell me, to quote Michael P. Jacobson, a veteran corrections official who heads a public policy institute for the City University of New York, that they see “almost a complete disconnect between what we know and what we do.”

“The influence of high-profile crimes, fear of crime, issues of race, the acquisition of cheap political capital — all have had far more influence on criminal justice policy than what we know works, or what is fair or just,” Mr. Jacobson told me.

America has greatly reduced access to college and graduate degree programs for prison inmates. Coinciding with mass incarceration, this policy change has effectively turned prison into a uniquely American poverty-trap.

Free public education in America has become almost non-existent, and the results are not pretty. There is roughly $900B-$1T dollars in outstanding student loan debt in America. One reason for this is that college tuition increases have far outstripped inflation over the past few decades.

People correctly argue that law abiding citizens should not have to pay exorbitant college tuition rates, while prisoners receive a free college education. However, this argument misses the point; a free public college education should be available to everyone! 

Aside from the obvious socioeconomic benefits associated with greater access to higher education (both in and out of prison), such a policy would also help reign in increasing tuition costs at private Universities. Make these institutions compete with a free alternative, and the price of college tuition should drop for those who still desire a private education.

This “us vs. them” mentality is indicative of public policy discourse in America, and it is a shame. Instead of debating the costs and benefits of policy reforms, we are stuck in a circle of spite; “I didn’t have this benefit, why should someone else!”. 

This “argument” misses the point of policy reform–whether or not people believe they would have been better off with said reform (spiteful responses suggests that people do, on some level, believe that said reform would have helped them)? It precludes truly progressive policy reforms, such as providing everyone with access to free public higher education. Of course this would require a greater public investment (although it doesn’t necessarily have to increase the deficit); the questions are whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and how those costs will be financed.

American politics has become a class battle between those below the poverty line and those barely above it. All the while, inequality increases and the American Dream becomes just that, a dream.

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Transparency Report: In Opposition of Reduced Gun Penalties

Support for Various Proposals to Prevent Gun Violence, by Party ID, January 2013

Last Friday I went shooting at a gun range with some friends, the first time I had ever done so, and I had a blast. This experience reinforced what I have always known–there are legitimate reasons to own a firearm (recreational shooting, hunting and self-defense come to mind, although IMO “stand your ground” is not self-defense).

When considering the forces holding back common sense gun reform in America, those who argue there is never a legitimate reason for owning a firearm are as much to blame as those who argue there can never be any new regulations on guns. Instead of forging strong laws through compromise, the two sides talk past each other, and the silent majority is left without the laws they favor. The extremes dominate the debate, blocking the very deliberative process the legislative branch was built upon. Unfortunately this is nothing new and it is not confined to the debate over gun-related laws.

Still, every now and then Congress actually passes laws. One idea which has recently gained bipartisan support are sentence reductions for non-violent offenders (specifically for drug related offenses). There are a number of reasons such reform is popular: harsher penalties have been ineffective, it reverses the trend of mass incarceration, it breaks “poverty traps” (what I have coined “the Prisoner Paradox“), and it saves money. Prison reform is a rare instance where the ideologies of fiscal responsibility and socioeconomic justice intersect.

However, the line must be drawn somewhere on prison reform. Shorter sentences for non-violent drug offenders is a good idea; reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership (as advocated in a recent NYT Op-Ed), is not:

We are accustomed to hearing about exorbitant mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, but similar sentencing for gun possession is less frequently mentioned, though its effects are often just as devastating, especially for poor people and people of color. In fact, a black person is nearly twice as likely to face a mandatory minimum carrying charge than a white person who is prosecuted for the same conduct.

Mandatory minimum gun laws have historically been favored by gun control advocates and gun rights proponents alike. Supporters insist that mandatory minimums diminish violence via incapacitation (putting potential shooters in prison) and deterrence.

But there is no good evidence that mandatory minimum gun laws actually have this effect. A recent report issued by the Bluhm Legal Clinic of the Northwestern University Law School concluded that “decades of empirical evidence and evaluations of specific state experiences demonstrate that mandatory sentences will not reduce gun violence.” Studies of the impact of such laws in Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia and Michigan found no discernible effect on violent crime rates. In return for issuing these sentences, society reaps only the heavy burdens that come with lengthy incarceration, perhaps the least of which is higher costs to taxpayers.

Opposition to mandatory sentencing for drug-related offenses is steadily growing. Now we must widen our criticism to encompass mandatory minimums for firearms. These laws are not reducing violence. They’re simply fueling a different kind of violence: the banishment and isolation of large numbers of people, especially people of color and poor people, tearing apart their lives, families and communities.

There are two reasons why I cannot support reduced gun sentencing for illegal gun ownership:

1) The Non-Violent Aspect: While there is no denying that drugs can be very harmful, even deadly, there is a qualitative difference between gun related deaths and drug related deaths. Theelement of personal accountability that cannot be overlooked when it comes to drug use. Except for the instances when someone is “drugged”, people willfully taking a substance should know the risks.

This is simply not the case gun related crime; guns are inherently lethal. A person can be walking down the street minding there own business and be killed by a gun in cold-blood. There is no choice being made, no time to consider ones actions, no element of personal accountability. Drugs kill their users, guns can kill indiscriminatelyIllegal gun ownership is a “non-violent crime” only until it enables a violent crime. 

2) Undermining Legitimate Gun Ownership: Despite my enjoyable time at the gun range last week, I am far from the biggest gun advocate in the world. However, part of any meaningful compromise is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; there are people who love their guns and use them responsibly. These people overwhelming support common sense gun reform, because it can put to ease their concerns that “THE GOVERNMENT IS COMING FOR YOUR GUNS!!!!

Reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership would inadvertently undermine universal background checks and other common sense gun-registration related initiatives. By reducing the penalty for illegal gun ownership, you are conversely increasing the benefits of circumventing gun laws. American politicians should be trying to find the balance between respecting peoples rights to enjoy guns responsibly, while keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. Reducing penalties for people who violate gun laws would be counter-productive in achieving these goals.

Simply put, there is no legitimate reason to own an unregistered gun.

In today’s 24 hour news cycle, there is a lot of pressure to be ahead of the game. Perhaps the writer of the NYT Op-Ed, seizing on increased public support for reduced mandatory drug sentences, though she’d make a splash by proposing something radical.

I am not saying we couldn’t save money by having more lenient gun penalties–of course we could. I am saying we would be exposing law abiding citizens to greater risks, while simultaneously undermining common sense gun reforms that ultimately protect the right to bear arms. Thankfully, I cannot see this plan gaining any real popular support.

(Another way to look at this argument is that there should never be mandatory sentences for ANY crime. One could argue that context always matters, and given the high costs of incarceration judges should be given complete discretion in all sentencing. This is a much broader argument, and not what the NYT Op-Ed was arguing.)


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Economic Outlook: Executive Orders and Prison Reform

People in Prisons and Jails for Drug Offenses

The “Prisoners Paradox“–the idea that longer prison sentences, as opposed to their stated goal of deterring crime, actually perpetuate a criminal culture, has been a recurring theme here at Normative Narratives.

Their are undeniably certain instances where criminals pose a danger to society and must be kept behind bars. However, since stricter drug laws were enacted in the 1980s, U.S. prisons have filled up with largely non-violent offenders.

Keeping people in prison has obvious direct costs (as of 2010, the average cost for an inmate in a state prison was $31,246/yr; federal inmate was $28,284). According to the ACLU, with only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population. In America, Prison is big business.

Further perpetuating this Prison-Industrial Complex is a plea-ultimatum offered to those accused of drug related crimes. According to a Human Rights Watch report, many drug offenders are “coerced” into a plead guilty to a crime, under threat of a harsher punishment if the case goes to trial:

Federal prosecutors routinely threaten extraordinarily severe prison sentences to coerce drug defendants into waiving their right to trial and pleading guilty, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. In the rare cases in which defendants insist on going to trial, prosecutors make good on their threats. Federal drug offenders convicted after trial receive sentences on average three times as long as those who accept a plea bargain, according to new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch.

Prosecutors favor mandatory sentences because they enhance their leverage not only to get convictions via pleas, but to get defendants to cooperate with the government in the prosecution of others in exchange for a lower sentence.

“Going to trial is a right, not a crime,” Fellner said. “But defendants are punished with longer sentences for exercising that right.”

“Independent federal judges who have no personal or institutional stake in the outcome should have the final say over sentencing,” Fellner said. “Judges should have the discretion to ensure that defendants in drug cases receive sentences proportionate to their crimes, not their willingness to plead guilty.”

Of more interest to social scientists–and at the core of the “Prisoners Paradox”–are the social and communal effects of incarceration. Incarceration causes skills to atrophy and carries a social stigma; many ex-cons cannot find honest work and end up back in jail. Incarceration robs children of a parent. Children growing up in single-parent households are much more susceptible to a wide array of social issues.

One could not watch President Obama’s State of the Union address this Tuesday without hearing about “Executive Orders”. One example of an Executive Order which could have profound fiscal and socioeconomic benefits would be clemency for non-violent drug offenders:

 The Obama administration, in its effort to curtail severe penalties in low-level drug cases, is taking the unprecedented step of encouraging defense lawyers to suggest inmates whom the president might let out of prison early.

Speaking at a New York State Bar Association event Thursday, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said the Justice Department wanted to send more names to White House for clemency consideration.

“This is where you can help,” he said, in remarks the Justice Department circulated in advance.

Prison officials will also spread the word among inmates that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders might be eligible to apply for clemency.

The clemency drive is part of the administration’s effort to undo sentencing discrepancies that began during the crack epidemic decades ago.

“There are more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today,” Mr. Cole said. “This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.”

Testifying on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the Bureau of Prisons now eats up 30 percent of the Justice Department’s budget, which strains the department’s ability to do other law enforcement missions.

Last August, Attorney General Eric Holder urged judges to consider less harsh sentences for non-violent drug offenders going forward. The clemency push is an important retroactive decision, which can ensure those who committed a crime “at the wrong time” don’t continue to face indefensibly long prison sentences.

One can already hear the criticisms now; President Obama, friend of the criminal! President Obama, defender of the lazy drug user! However, many people convicted of drug-related offenses experience injustice throughout the criminal justice system–from arrest, to trial, to sentencing. Letting criminals out of jail will not solve all of our problems. However, keeping people unjustly locked up for long periods of time has certainly perpetuated lingering socio-racial issues in America.

Clemency is not meant to undermine personal accountability; people need to suffer negative consequences for socially unacceptable behavior or there is way of deterring such behavior. What clemency and a reworked criminal justice system can accomplish is proportionality–ensuring that once someone “has learned their lesson”, they do not remain incarcerated to the detriment of all involved (except, I suppose, those who run the prison).

If there is a policy that will reduce the governments prison bill and may reduce future dependence on government welfare spending–without compromising the security of law abiding Americans–do we not owe it to ourselves as a country to pursue such a policy?