The 401st Blow :: Thoughts On Media

What Should Be A Part Of The Stimulus

Posted in Policy by Noah Harlan on February 12, 2009

I know I’m already getting off topic a little bit since this blog should be media focused, but I hope you’ll indulge me. I have been watching the coverage of the stimulus and am surprised that there are so few creative ideas out there, so here is one I had. Tell me what you think:

We have roughly 1,000,000 non-violent offenders in jail in the US right now. It costs roughly $35,000 per inmate to house them. This means that the states and federal government are spending around $35B/year on housing these criminals. What if we drastically reduced that number AND massively increased the financial penalties. Someone like Bernard Madoff wouldn’t spend 50 years in jail but, rather, maybe 1 or 2 and would give up 95% of his net worth (all assets included). For many offenders (simple possession) this would probably mean fines of as little as perhaps $1000. If they can’t pay, they go to jail but if they can meet the fine they pay and the physical incarceration is far less. If you could average $5,000 per convict (which should be doable) then you are raising another $5B. That means a swing of $40B/year between cost cutting and revenue. Not too shabby. Carve out a chunk of that for education and community law enforcement (and parole managers) and you still come out WAY ahead.

The notion of affixing pricing to injury dates back to biblical times and the modern law roots go back to the middle ages when the vikings established danelaw in England under which they had an elaborate system of set payments for different types of injury to others. Here is a wonderful description of it:

Anglo-Saxon kings were prolific legislators, and a number of law-codes survive from the seventh to eleventh centuries. The earliest have much in common with continental Germanic law, including a ‘personal injury tariff’ or schedule of compensation for various kinds of bodily injuries. Under seventh-century Kentish law, for instance, the sum of 12 shillings was payable for cutting off an ear, 30 shillings for disabling a shoulder, and 50 shillings for putting out an eye. Knocking out a front tooth was assessed at a higher rate of compensation than knocking out a back tooth, while a finger was worth twice as much as a toe. Homicide required payment of the wergild, literally ‘man-price’, a sum which varied according to social class.

There is a very interesting paper from a visiting professor of economics at Harvard that shows that changing marijuana policy could yield nearly $14B in savings & revenue alone (this ignores my fine-based proposal).

It’s absurd that we have over 2M people in prison – the largest prison population in the world.


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