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.