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.
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?
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?
Great suggestion! That said, in light of your first paragraph, I'd like to point out a couple of issues. I came up with most of these by asking the questions "What exactly are you trying to encourage? What exactly are you incentivising? What differences are there between the two, and what would make those difference significant?"
You are trying to encourage prisons to rehabilitate their inmates. If, for a given prisoner, we use p to represent their propensity towards recidivism and a to represent their actual recidivism, rehabilitation is represented by p-a. Of course, we can't actually measure these values, so we use proxies; anticipated recidivism according to your algorithm and re-conviction rate (we'll call these p' and a', respectively).
With this incentive scheme, our prisons have three incentives: increasing p'-p, increasing p-a, and increasing a-a'. The first and last can lead to some problematic incentives.
To increase p'-p, prisons need to incarcerate prisoners which are less prone to recidivism than predicted. Given that past criminality is an excellent predictor of future criminality, this leads to a perverse incentive towards incarcerating those who were unfair... (read more)
The incentive to try "high volatility" methods seems like an advantage; if many prisons try them, 20% of them would succeed, and we'd learn how to rehabilitate better.
Obvious, but worth mentioning: the recidivism index should not count the prisoners who didn't commit any more crimes because they died after they were released; otherwise it would appear lower than its actual value (and would create a hideous incentive).
I can see this system creating pressure to relax parole standards; if a minor deviance from the rules is not counted as recidivism, both the prison and the prisoner benefit.
This still incentivizes prisons to help along the death of prisoners that they predict are more likely then the prison-wide average to repeat-offend, in the same way average utilitarianism recommends killing everyone but the happiest person (so to speak).
The elephant in the room is that the US has radically higher incarnation rates than every other country. If you want to reform the systems it's worth paying attention to how the US system differs and what it does to get higher incarnation rates.
That sounds plausible at first glance but it might be more complicated. Have you looked in more detail about how prisons are currently payed?... (read more)
The first thing you suggest, creating a quality model of recidivism, would be eminently worthwhile. So much so, it has probably been done already a few times. Google "model of recidivism" and see how much stuff is out there. Read it.
Missing actor/incentive structure:
Our current justice system is largely based on the idea of retribution, not rehabilitation. This is a trade-off where the State delivers vengeance for victims/families of victims to prevent vigilante justice. It may not make much sense in terms of impact today, but as a cultural norm it still exists and this idea does nothing to address that.
Does not really address "recidivism" of victimless crimes, including most drug crimes, except in the most general sense. Convincing people that smoking weed is morally wrong is much harder than convincing them that murder is morally wrong.
The core idea of incentivizing prisons to reduce recidivism seems very reasonable. If it's not currently being done, it definitely seems worth trying. At least for the experimental data of whether or not it's a good idea (although politicians wouldn't be able to admit to that reasoning).
Do you know if this is currently being done in any form? Are there other industries/contexts where similar things are being done? Successes? Failures?
This is really complex issue. What "should" be done depends on a lot of factors. You don't seem to have addresse... (read more)
To cut back on prison rape, some people have proposed segregating prisons by weight class. Using lean body mass would seem like a better idea. (To prevent short fat guys from being abused.) It would be easy to implement as well.
Letting prisoners choose which prison they will be housed in, and then paying prisons based on head count seems like an interesting idea to me. (The prisons could be privatized, or a bonus could be paid to wardens/staff/guards for each increase in enrollment. If a prison has a reputation for being dangerous or violent, just opt int... (read more)
Nice post! A related idea: instead of incentivizing only reduced recidivism, we can incentivize things like former prisoners finding decent jobs.
What are the incentives for the powers-that-be to adopt your scheme?
Where will the "bonus" money come from? If from reduced expenses on dealing with crime, this is a direct threat to the jobs of cops, judges, prison guards, etc. etc. Crime is highly useful and profitable to many people. They will not want to reduce crime (or "crime") rates.
Amazing work OP
There's an incentive you didn't mention, towards smallest prison populations, which is lowering costs and taxes.
You seem to take it for granted that the prison system will be largely private, but in many countries they are directly run by the state, which removes the profit and campaign donation incentives at a stroke.
Perhaps instead of the prison, the ex-prisoner should be given the financial incentive to avoid recidivism. Reward good behavior, rather than punish bad.
We could do this by providing training, and given them reasonable jobs. HA HA! I make myself laugh. Sigh.
It seems to me the issue is less one of recidivism, and more one of the prison-for-profit machine. Rather than address it by trying to make them profit either way (they get paid if the prisoner returns already - this is proposing they get paid if they stay out) - it seems simpler to remove profit as a... (read more)
Evidence? Given the history of attempts at rehabilitation programs, this is a rather dubious statement.... (read more)
You seem to have forgotten why appearing "tough on crime" appeals to current voters.
Breif history lesson: During the 1960's and early 1970's politicans competed for electability by appearing compasionate to criminals, who were after all only "victims of society". The result was the massive crime wave of the 1970's. As a result the generation which grew ... (read more)
"Our opinion-makers have gone too far in promoting the doctrine that when a law is broken, society, not the criminal is to blame." -- Richard Nixon, 1967 (about a year before he became President)
The data does not support the claim that "tough on crime" strategy was effective.
But the "tough on lead" strategy likely was.