A Proposal for Defeating Moloch in the Prison Industrial Complex

bylululu4y2nd Jun 201577 comments



I'd like to increasing the well-being of those in the justice system while simultaneously reducing crime. I'm missing something here but I'm not sure what. I'm thinking this may be a worse idea than I originally thought based on comment feedback, though I'm still not 100% sure why this is the case.

Current State

While the prison system may not constitute an existential threat, At this moment more than 2,266,000 adults are incarcerated in the US alone, and I expect that being in prison greatly decreases QALYs for those incarcerated, that further QALYs are lost to victims of crime, family members of the incarcerated, and through the continuing effects of institutionalization and PTSD from sentences served in the current system, not to mention the brainpower and man-hours lost to any productive use.

If you haven't read these Meditations on Moloch, I highly recommend it. It’s long though, so the executive summary is: Moloch is the personification of the forces of competition which perverse incentives, a "race to the bottom" type situation where all human values are discarded in an effort to survive. That this can be solved with better coordination, but it is very hard to coordinate when perverse incentives also penalize the coordinators and reward dissenters. The prison industrial complex is an example of these perverse incentives. No one thinks that the current system is ideal but incentives prevent positive change and increase absolute unhappiness.


  • Politicians compete for electability. Convicts can’t vote, prisons make campaign contributions and jobs, and appearing “tough on crime” appeals to a large portion of the voter base.
  • Jails compete for money: the more prisoners they house, the more they are paid and the longer they can continue to exist. This incentive is strong for public prisons and doubly strong for private prisons.
  • Police compete for bonuses and promotions, both of which are given as rewards to cops who bring in and convict more criminals
  • Many of the inmates themselves are motivated to commit criminal acts by the small number of non-criminal opportunities available to them for financial success, besides criminal acts. After becoming a criminal, this number of opportunities is further narrowed by background checks.


The incentives have come far out of line with human values. What can be done to bring incentives back in alignment with the common good?

My Proposal

Using a model that predicts recidivism at sixty days, one year, three years, and five years, predict the expected recidivism rate for all inmates at all individual prison given average recidivism. Sixty days after release, if recidivism is below the predicted rate, the prison gets a small sum of money equaling 25% of the predicted cost to the state of dealing with the predicted recidivism (including lawyer fees, court fees, and jailing costs). This is repeated at one year, three years, and five years.

The statistical models would be readjusted with current data every years, so if this model causes recidivism to drop across the board, jails would be competing against ever higher standard, competing to create the most innovative and groundbreaking counseling and job skills and restorative methods so that they don’t lose their edge against other prisons competing for the same money. As it becomes harder and harder to edge out the competition’s advanced methods, and as the prison population is reduced, additional incentives could come by ending state contracts with the bottom 10% of prisons, or with any prisons who have recidivism rates larger than expected for multiple years in a row.


Note that this proposal makes no policy recommendations or value judgement besides changing the incentive structure. I have opinions on the sanity of certain laws and policies and the private prison system itself, but this specific proposal does not. Ideally, this will reduce some amount of partisan bickering.

Using this added success incentive, here are the modified motivations of each of the major actors.


  • Politicians compete for electability. Convicts still can’t vote, prisons make campaign contributions, and appearing “tough on crime” still appeals to a large portion of the voter base. The politician can promise a reduction in crime without making any specific policy or program recommendations, thus shielding themselves from criticism of being soft on crime that might come from endorsing restorative justice or psychological counselling, for instance. They get to claim success for programs that other people, are in charge of administrating and designing. Further, they are saving 75% of the money predicted to have have been spent administrating criminals. Prisons love getting more money for doing the same amount of work so campaign contributions would stay stable or go up for politicians who support reduced recidivism bonuses.
  • Prisons compete for money. It costs the state a huge amount of money to house prisoners, and the net profit from housing a prisoner is small after paying for food, clothing, supervision, space, repairs, entertainment, ect. An additional 25% of that cost, with no additional expenditures is very attractive. I predict that some amount of book-cooking will happen, but that the gains possible with book cooking are small compared to gains from actual improvements in their prison program. Small differences in prisons have potential to make large differences in post-prison behavior. I expect having an on-staff CBT psychiatrist would make a big difference; an addiction specialist would as well. A new career field is born: expert consultants who travel from private prison to private prison and make recommendations for what changes would reduce recidivism at the lowest possible cost.
  • Police and judges retain the same incentives as before, for bonuses, prestige, and promotions. This is good for the system, because if their incentives were not running counter to the prisons and jails, then there would be a lot of pressure to cook the books by looking the other way on criminals til after the 60 day/1 year/5 year mark. I predict that there will be a couple scandals of cops found to be in league with prisons for a cut of the bonus, but that this method isn’t very profitable. For one thing, an entire police force would have to be corrupt and for another, criminals are mobile and can commit crimes in other precincts. Police are also motivated to work in safer areas, so the general program of rewarding reduced recidivism is to their advantage.



If it could be shown that a model for predicting recidivism is highly predictive, we will need to create another model to predict how much the government could save if switching to a bonus system, and what reduction of crime could be expected.

Halfway houses in Pennsylvania are already receiving non-recidivism bonuses. Is a pilot project using this pricing structure feasible?