Sunday, July 24, 2005

M. Yglesias on judges, prisons, and crime rates

In part of a larger post at TAPPED, M. Yglesias makes an interesting point w.r.t. judges who are "soft on crime" and crime rates:

On a wonky note, "soft on crime" judges who let factually guilty people get off on technicalities actually don't impact crime rates at all. The way the criminal justice system actually works is that governors and legislatures appropriate funds to create enough space in prison for X number of people. Parole boards and prosecutors then use their discretion to ensure that the prison beds stay full. Faced with overcrowding, people don't serve their full sentences and people accused of relatively minor felonies get generous plea bargains. As prison capacity expands, prosecutors start driving harder bargains. Aggregate incarceration rates do impact violent crime but the fate of any particular offender doesn't change the incarceration rate; budget decisions made in state capitals are the real causal drivers.

I never realized this before, but it makes perfect sense.

1 comment:

  1. This is mostly right, but you also need to take into account commercial interests of companies like CCA (the largest private prison contractor). In Texas, they contribute mightily to political campaigns of judges who are "tough on crime." The more zealous judge ultimates gets more funding, and so do lawmakers committed to increasing prison beds. In the last 20 years I've lived in Texas, we are constantly hearing that we have a "severe shortage of prison beds" regardless of prison population or crime rate.

    But you're right that parole boards can "make up the difference" very easily. One problem is that parole boards are given more discretionary power than they really need. Instead of judges giving prisoners reasonable sentences in the first place, they give longer sentences with the understanding that parole boards will let them out earlier with deferred adjudication or probation (which prisoners find hard abiding by). I've seen this firsthand; a good friend of mine has gotten probation revoked (and a 5 year drug-related sentence reinstated) simply for failing to report to his probation officer 2 months in a row. I could go on, but here's a good Texas advocacy site
    that makes the points better than I ever could.