Make Counties Pay to Put People in Prison

A proposal to help reduce incarceration rates in the United States

This Illustration can only be used with the Molly Mirhashem piece that originally ran in the 6/13/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. (National Journal)

Two professors have proposed an idea that could help reduce mass incarceration in the U.S.: realigning fiscal incentives for states and counties. The professors—Steve Raphael of U.C. Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy and Michael Stoll of UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs—explained the idea in their 2013 book, Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? I recently spoke with Stoll about the proposal. Our exchange has been edited and condensed.

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(Mitch Blunt)Could you explain your idea? We think it's possible to lower incarceration rates and actually improve public safety, particularly if we were to limit imprisonment to only those who pose the most serious threats and risks to society and who commit the most violent offenses. There's a significant disconnect between the states, which finance prisons and imprisonment, and the counties, which largely prosecute, convict, and sentence criminals who are sent to state prisons. In the existing model, counties don't face the marginal cost of their decisions to send those convicted to state prisons. One of the basic ideas in economics is that if something is free, you'll use too much of it. And in this case, for counties, prison is free. So we have been arguing that counties should have some "skin in the game" by making them face some of the cost of their criminal-justice decisions.

What would that "skin in the game" look like in practice? One model is for states and counties to cost-share incarceration. For every felony offender they send to prison, the state could charge the county some amount of money. Depending on the state, it costs somewhere between $31,000 and $65,000 to send someone to prison for a year. So if you were to charge counties some fraction of that cost to send someone to prison, they're going to be more selective about whom they send to prison. We think that the counties shouldn't have to pay any cost-share for the most violent offenders. But for those low-level, low-risk offenders—for example, petty-theft or drug-possession offenders—the county could be made to face upward of 75 percent or 100 percent of the cost. And we think if counties were made to face some of the costs of their decisions, they would make different decisions.

The state could also give block grants to counties. The county could get a sum of money from the state to accomplish all of their objectives with respect to imprisonment. And if they went over that amount by sending more people to prison than allowed by the grant, the counties could be taxed. And if they use less than the limit of the grant, the counties could keep that money and invest wisely in other criminal-justice endeavors.

Another financial incentive could simply be for states to allocate prison beds based on historical incarceration rates in each county. And if a county went over the allotted number of prison beds, the county would then pay the full freight. There are a lot of different creative ways that states and counties can come together to use resources more efficiently.

What would it take logistically to put this idea into practice? This is a question of political will. There are no technological or administrative hurdles that are so high they can't be overcome. The states and counties can work together to determine if it might be in their best interest.

What are some potential drawbacks to consider? If you were to realign incentives in ways that provided alternatives to imprisonment for low-level offenders, all it would take is one low-level offender going on a criminal rampage to sound the alarm that alternatives to imprisonment are a bad idea. And we recognize that. But we think we have to look at the benefits and the costs and consider the bigger picture, rather than one individual act as evidence for or against a specific policy proposal. We should think more carefully about how we use scarce resources, which prison beds are. And we think they should be reserved for people who pose the greatest risk to society.