Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Calling One Out: Prisoners and Students

The other day during conversation, a colleague who is also a full-time student was talking about the costs of education.

"It's amazing when you think about it," he said, "Because even for all the grumbling about the high costs involved with schooling, it's twice as expensive to imprison a person. How messed up is that?"

Please don't get me wrong -- this isn't a lead-in to some rant about law and order, or lockin' em up and throwin' away the key, or the rightness or wrongness of the American criminal justice system. It's also not about the near- and long-term costs or benefits of incarcerating people for breaking the law. Instead, it's about the statement and rhetorical question, in and of itself.

Much like other oft-repeated but wide-of-the-mark statements, like those about the fate of 50% of marriages (they don't), or whether certain groups weren't once immigrants to North America (sorry but ALL were, at some point, as I first saw on Choosing a Soundtrack last July and have kept in mind ever since), or whether a man named Crapper invented the flush toilet (he didn't), the implication that the prisoners and students spending comparison is somehow "messed up" doesn't really ring true.

The way people usually derive this is to compare the direct costs of education itself versus the entire cost of housing, feeding, and caring for a prisoner. As my eight year-old niece might say, "Well, duh."

One ought to be fairly expensive, as it involves salaries, administration, transportation, books, resources, and equipment, etc. from roughly 8 a.m. until roughly 3 p.m. each day. If we're talking college, people usually use the tuition itself, or the per-pupil costs to a state university, when making this argument. Still, it's not hard to imagine what's being included and what's not.

The second ought to be a whole lot MORE expensive, as it also involves intensive manpower and the resultant salaries, administration, transportation, etc. but also three squares a day, living facilities, health care and prescriptions, legal rights, and other basic 24/7 amenities that most of us folks on the outside take for granted. If we re-jiggered the numbers to include all the per capita spending on the lives of students (whether from their own or others' wallets), to include their housing, their meals, their entertainment, their transportation and fuel costs, and the uniformed folks who keep order on the outside, things might not seem so "messed up" after all. It's really easy to calculate per-head costs this way for a prison, but not so easy to do for an open society. I may not always appreciate it, but I am constantly deriving benefit from the fact that there's a police station within view of my house and someone waiting to answer a 911 call if I ever had to make it. So is a student who *only* spends 20k per year on tuition.

I happen to admire Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, and have said as much on several local blogs, for his politically unpopular but spot-on strident critiques of our prison-industrial system. For the record, I think it's important that we do whatever we can to prevent recidivism. If that means properly taking care of our prisoners, manning the corrections staffs enough to prevent sexual abuse, and making every effort to provide inmates with job skills, then so be it.

But just to tie it back to the top for a second, I just want to reiterate that my overall point here is NOT about the proper amount of money our society ought to spend on schools or prisons.

Frankly, I have no idea about the *proper* levels of either, and won't pretend to.

It's late, and I'm too lazy to look all this up right now, but if you showed me numbers indicating that the cost of locking someone up in Shirley for a year was four times greater than the cost of in-state tuition at UML, I just wouldn't be able to extrapolate much from that - it's just not saying anything.


kad barma said...

Two thoughts. Firstly, have you seen this recent report from the corporate/private run prison in Idaho? (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101201/ap_on_re_us/us_prison_violence_video) Cut-pricing the prison management there has resulted in at least the appearance of some very serious abbreviation to at least one inmate's civil rights.

Secondly, in the cost-of-prison calculation, I think we also need to try to factor in the opportunity savings (the opposite of opportunity costs) of not having criminals loose on the streets. The alternative to locking a convicted criminal up is to have them wandering around free to do whatever it is that they're inclined to do, and there's absolutely a cost to be associated with that. (Our theory, I hope, is that incarceration reduces rather than increases the risk of recidivism, though even if it increases it, there has to be some benefit to the time these prisoners spend behind bars. And, if it decreases it, well, then there you have additional savings.

Or, put another way--I think you're right to call foul on the specious reasoning.

kad barma said...

Oh, almost forgot--that complaint you have with the "oft-repeated" fate of 50% of marriages being "wide of the mark"?

here's the CDC page on it: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/divorce.htm

the marriage rate is 6.8 per 1000. the divorce rate is 3.4 per 1000. i think the math is rather simple, no?

The New Englander said...

Kad, Thx for mentioning the Idaho story...I googled up on it a bit and caught some videos that explained just why it's a BAD idea to skimp too far on our prison spending. I will also remember the opportuntity savings point, or the positive externality, or whatever else we'd call it -- all those people on the outside (even students!) benefit when dangerous criminals are separated from the larger society.

As for the divorce statistic, I posted that a bit too quickly after some sloppy Google searches. You're right as long as those #'s hold up for the long-term. People tried to refute the 50% statistic when when it was first derived that way by saying, "But you're only comparing marriages and divorces for ONE year, not factoring in that many of those divorces came from marriages that were many years old."

That may have been technically true at the time, but your point is irrefutable -- if the # of divorces steadily remains at half the # of marriages over the long-term, then we can safely say that half of all marriages end in divorce.

When I stop and think about it, I may have done what I was decrying in reverse -- heard enough times and bought in w/o checking.