As of 2019, there were 1,260,400 people in state prison systems. The average annual cost-per-inmate was $33,274, creating a combined $43 billion annual expenditure. These numbers are too high. There are too many people in prison and states are spending far too much money to keep them there. The United States has, by far and away, the highest rate of incarceration in the industrialized world. Our prisons are bursting with people, existing in horrible conditions and sucking valuable tax dollars from state coffers.
Mass incarceration is unacceptable and must be combated on many levels: economic policy to alleviate poverty, policing reform to reduce unnecessary arrests, sentencing reform, and more. However, in order to be induced to move quickly to end mass incarceration, states must be incentivized. While activists and special interests are making headway towards creating political costs for inaction, there still exist counterbalancing costs for action. Reduction of prison populations invariably faces opposition, especially when implemented abruptly or sloppily. The needle of the nation is ticking towards decreasing the rate of incarceration, but the process is slow.
In this proposal, we advocate for the federal government to take on the burden of incentivization. We propose a program to compensate states that reduce their prison populations. The federal government will shoulder short-term financial costs but will ultimately recoup such expenditures through expansion of the tax base, redistribution of state revenues, and the numerous intangible benefits of having far fewer Americans behind bars.
PAY STATES TO RELEASE PRISONERS
Congress would create a new federal commission, the American Inmate Reduction Commission (AIRC). Simultaneously, Congress would authorize $20 billion annually in grants to states for inmate reduction.
The AIRC would be composed of seven members: the Director and Deputy Director of the Bureau of Prisons ex officio and five experts appointed by the President and subject to confirmation by the Senate. The Commission would be empowered to execute all legislation pertaining to reducing state prison populations.
The AIRC would also be responsible for distribution of the aforementioned federal grants. In order for states to be eligible for the grants, they must make their prison systems fully accessible to inspection and oversight by the AIRC and its designated officers.
Grants would be awarded for every single inmate released from state prisons as a result of reform. States would be responsible for counting how many inmates they release under such conditions. Prisoners that are released as a result of normal procedures such as parole or sentences expiring would not be eligible. States would report their statistics to the AIRC and be subject to audit. For each qualifying release, the AIRC would award the state a grant equal to half the state’s annual cost-per-inmate.
Inmates could only be counted for grants once. If they were released under a state prison reform, reported, and counted for a grant, then re-arrested, re-imprisoned, and re-released, they could not be counted for a grant again.
Any funds not distributed by the AIRC in a given year would rollover to the next. Congress would have the ability to annually re-assess the AIRC’s appropriations and performance. The AIRC would be responsible for producing a report to Congress on the number of prisoners released and the cost of such releases.
This program is designed to incentivize the demise of mass incarceration. It does so by putting a thumb on the scale in favor of release when states are making decisions. It is not the job of the federal government to operate state justice systems. States should be the ultimate arbiters of who is imprisoned and who is released. However, the government can use its Spending Power to influence such decisions. States have to take many different aspects into consideration when determining how or whether to reform their prisons, police, or sentencing. The AIRC and the grant program will, overall, make the choice to release easier.
In doing so, more Americans will re-enter productive society. More families will be reunited, more businesses created, more jobs filled. Mass incarceration is a blight on America and a systemic violation of individual liberty. It is unjust and oppressive. The full force of libertarian policy must be deployed to end it; federal grants are merely a small piece. However, financial incentives can be powerful, especially when presented to cash-strapped state governments. This program could set in motion a whole host of beneficial prison reforms.
The primary objection to this proposal will be the same that is raised against most criminal justice reform: releasing criminals will cause more crime. This concern is a valid one. Everyone deserves to be safe from crime and violence. However, this proposal really should have no impact on who gets released. It gives states full jurisdiction to make such determinations. If states so choose, they might only release nonviolent offenders who have sentences less that six months. They might only release perpetrators of financial crimes. They might only release those convicted of personal drug possession. Or they might not release anyone. This proposal does not force violent criminals out into the street. States have full control and are under no obligation to participate.
A secondary objection could be financial. Why is the government paying states billions of dollars to free criminals? The answer is the general welfare. Lowering prison populations is beneficial to American society as a whole, morally, economically, and strategically. The government has a duty to protect liberty, and mass incarceration is an unacceptable violation of liberty. It also ought to encourage economic activity and growth; freeing inmates allows them to reenter the workforce, start companies, and provide for their families. Lastly, from an international relations point of view, the US’s prison situation is a liability. It is difficult for us to protect human rights abroad when we violate them at home.
This proposal is a way for the federal government to unobtrusively affect state prison policy for the better. It is a way to move the needle towards justice and liberty. Mass incarceration must be defeated, along with police brutality and the surveillance state. The federal government is far from innocent in the creation of these behemoths of oppression, but it can also be the organ of power that begins to destroy them. It must pay states to release prisoners.