From Small Town to Prison

With hard work, using publicly available data, not relying on off the record access to sources, Josh Keller and Adam Pearce have written an excellent important article which notes that from 2006 to 2013 the rate of new admissions to prison from high and medium population counties has sharply declined, but the rate of admission from low population counties has actually increased.


The first thing I learned from the article is that the New York Times still has some value aside from it’s role as fish wrap and publisher of Paul Krugman. I think this is journalism at its best. Oh and I note that the article is, in large part, data journalism (it’s not just for bloggers anymore).

The second is, well the fact, of which I was totally unaware.

There is also an excellent investigation of why this happened. Keller and Pearce note that this is *not* principally due to differences in differences in reported crime rates. They note the important role of capacity — prison crowding causes shorter sentences — the system keeps the prisons full but not vastly over capacity. They note the absence of alternatives to prison in small counties and the terrible shortage of drug treatment services (hmm I wonder if Hillary Clinton has recently proposed doing something about that ?). Of course they note the changing geography of drug abuse. But to an economist, their most interesting thought concerns misaligned incentives.

They quote Aaron Negangard, the prosecutor in Dearborn County, Ind (which “sentenced more people to prison than San Francisco or Westchester County, N.Y., which each have at least 13 times as many people.”). He said “My constituents are the people who decide whether I keep doing my job. The governor can’t make me. The legislature can’t make me.” Ah yes, he works for the people of Dearborn County which can use more than it’s share of space in state prisons without paying the state. The benefits are local, the budget is statewide, the decisions are made by local elected officials. There is a free riding problem. It is actually worse than it seems at first glance. There is also a non-budgetary spillover. If there is an extaordinarily severe county, professional criminals have an incentive toavoid it and commit crimes elsewhere. So people in Indiana minus Dearborn county pay (most) of the cost of scaring criminals from Dearborn county to other counties.

Now the state legislature and Governor Pence could deal with this problem effectively (and will when pigs fly). It is caused by prosecutorial discretion with laws which allow extremely long sentences combined with plea bargaining. If the sentence for the actual crime committed weren’t absurdly long, DAs would not be able to help their counties at the expense of the state.

Now big city prosecutors will also resist reduction of sentences. They find the threat of absurdly long sentences useful, because then they don’t have to bother with trials. Defendents (including those whose innocence is proven beyond doubt years later) plead guilty to lesser offences to avoid the risk of long prison sentences. Obviously the job of a prosecutor is easier if he or she doesn’t have to actually prove guilt anywhere.

But Keller and Adam Pearce have demonstrated to all city dwellers who are paying attention and thinking (maybe I should have typed “both” not “all”) that they are paying a high price (first of all in dollars) to avoid the inconvenience of providing due process to those people.