Q&A on "The Illusion of Free Markets" with Bernard Harcourt discussion

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Topic #1: Why isn't mass incarceration at the center of our budget debates right now?

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message 1: by Bernard E. (new)

Bernard E. Harcourt | 16 comments Mod
There's been some traffic on the web (but not enough) on the issue of the costs of mass incarceration in these times of fiscal crisis, budget deficits, and the slashing of social programs. I've collected some of the blog posts here. Let's start our discussion by asking the simple question: Why aren't corrections budgets at the very heart of our federal budget debates today? What is it about punishment and prisons that seems to escape the logic of cost analysis?


message 2: by John (last edited Mar 01, 2011 08:28AM) (new)

John Pfaff | 2 comments Isn't it just a matter of relative irrelevance? At the federal level, corrections is a drop in the bucket. The 2011 budget is nearly $4 trillion, and the BOP's budget is $6.8 billion, which is less than 0.2% of the federal budget. Setting the BOP budget to zero would do nothing to federal spending.

At the state level, where corrections can take up as much as 10% or 15% of discretionary spending, there has been a lot more action. It will be interesting to see, though, whether what we're seeing is just a short-run response to a budget crisis, or if that short-run response will lead to longer-run changes.


message 3: by Bernard E. (new)

Bernard E. Harcourt | 16 comments Mod
You’re right, John, that most of the cost of mass incarceration today is borne by the states, and we need to be paying more of our attention there. But the federal budget debates are the perfect illustration of the problem. What makes them so fascinating is that (1) we have a Democratic presidential administration that explicitly calls for reducing mass incarceration and has plans to release well-behaved inmates, (2) we have continuing drops in violent crime at the national level, (3) we are slashing social programs because of our exponential federal deficit, and yet… the Obama administration just proposed an 11 percent increase in spending on the federal prison system. What makes this budget line impervious? Why couldn’t savings be found there to protect one or two social programs? The same problem can be seen at the state level in states like California, New York, Texas…


message 4: by Rumbustious (new)

Rumbustious | 4 comments Political cowardice is largely responsible. Willie Horton, you know. Also, the US punishment paradigm is completely divorced from the rest of the 1st world model. A long sentence in the UK is perceived as anything over 3 years. That's a wrist slap here. There is a powerful private prison lobby, too, that plays a part. If the BOP were to increase its budget to improve conditions, that would be one thing, but that's unlikely. More money for private prisons is more likely, and higher pay for already overpaid guards. And these, in turn, contribute to political campaigns (see Arizona). As for the imperviousness of the prison budget, it is because no one speaks for the incarcerated. There is no Howard League here, and prison reform is a pretty much neglected issue.
People who speak of rehabilitation forget that the BOP publicly abandoned that concept some time ago. Prisons exist for punishment. Foucalt remarked, "Beware of those in whom the urge to punish is strong." Not that he heeded it.


message 5: by Rumbustious (new)

Rumbustious | 4 comments I know it's Foucault. Typo


message 6: by John (new)

John Pfaff | 2 comments @Bernard: I think the federal system is always a sui generis. Unlike the states, it doesn't face a real budget constraint, so its decision-making is less zero-sum. It could be that the BOP increase is part of a log-roll that actually preserves other programs, or a relatively cheap political maneuver to offset other political liabilities (like changing DOMA enforcement decisions). States can't print money or borrow so easily, so the prison-or-social-program tradeoff is starker--and thus it isn't surprising that the states are the ones making the incarceration cuts.

I'm certainly not disagreeing that prison budgets are surprisingly immune to cuts. I just think that state responses tell us more about the actual politics of what is happening.


message 7: by Bernard E. (new)

Bernard E. Harcourt | 16 comments Mod
Good points, both. I think that you’re right, Rumbustious (what a great screen name!), that the budget debates are going to be skewed importantly because “no one speaks for the incarcerated.” Since budgeting is a political process that is essentially about lobbying, the lack of a lobby is going to have a significant impact. I also think, John, that there may be log-rolling, which will never advantage decarceration since, again, the prisoners have little to offer. The prison guard lobby, by contrast, will. So there may well be institutional political design questions that account for the imperviousness of the corrections budget line. But there has to be something else at play, because the whole carceral field is never (or rarely) examined in terms of human capital and economic return. It's not just at budget time...


message 8: by Bernard E. (new)

Bernard E. Harcourt | 16 comments Mod
Thanks Che! The conference at Princeton with Cornel West and Michelle Alexander looks fabulous and the ongoing movement in Alabama, headed to LA, will certainly mobilize around the issue. I'll disseminate the information on other sites. And now, post another topic! Thanks! Bernard.


message 9: by Andrew (new)

Andrew J. | 1 comments It seems especially odd that at a time when the mantra of both major parties is "cut, cut, cut" that two major locales of spending (the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex) are not only not being cut, but are having their budgets increased. State and federal educational programs, however, are being cut deeply.

As an anecdotal example, I work in a public school in one of the most impoverished regions of the country (the Rio Grande Valley). My district is being cut so deeply that it is likely there will be no custodians next school year, and teachers will have custodial duties in addition to their instructional duties. Without sounding too conspiratorial, I do not think that the increase in military/prison spending coupled with the decrease in educational spending is a coincidence. It is even known that some states use literacy rates (as determined by standardized testing) to predict and determine the number of prison beds.

In addition, Bernard (and others), I think that the spending habits being discussed here are representative of deeply ingrained beliefs in the populace. No matter what their political ideology, I think that many people in the U.S. believe at a base level that the government has some basic and essential responsibilities. From a very early age on, the military and punishment are drilled into people as two such essential programs (i.e. and not just in the direct propagandistic means either, but consider the childhood game of 'cops & robbers', or the friendly militarization of G.I. Joe dolls, etc.). Both of these realms of government activity are also centered around fear, the most manipulated of human emotions.


message 10: by David (new)

David Kaib | 2 comments Budget cuts aren't about reducing spending (and even less about deficits, since they are often pared with tax cuts) - they are about a continuing shift in governance away from creating broad based opportunity and security towards inequality and punishment. Cutting prison spending, or surveillance, or the Drug War or military spending would be moving in the opposite direction, so they are not part of the conversation.


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