If you support school vouchers, should you also support prison vouchers?

I’d like to pose a puzzle to my conservative/libertarian-inclined readers.

You support school vouchers in large part because of the idea that competition among private schools for voucher dollars will improve service delivery. I take it that you would also accept the idea that there’s an incentive misalignment because the state stands as an intermediary between parents and students and schools — schools have an incentive to maximize revenue from the state, which need not mean maximizing educational quality. We might most helpfully see this as a complicated sort of principal-agent problem: the students/parents have the power to monitor but not control school behavior, while the state has the power to control but not monitor.

But similar points might be made with respect to prisons, particularly privatized prisons. I take it that the state has some legitimate interests in prisons (pretty much entirely the interest in making sure the prisoners don’t escape), but that there are also many legitimate interests that the prisoners have in prisons — the prisoners have a legitimate interest in not being tortured, for example, in being fed adequately, in receiving medical care, in being protected from violent fellow inmates. There’s a similar principal-agent problem with respect to those interests — prisoners can monitor their treatment, but can’t change it, and the state can change the behavior of those who run privatized prisons, but can’t monitor it.

So, rather than having state-run prisons or private prisons, why shouldn’t the state establish minimum standards for the things it cares about (people not escaping — which is something the state CAN readily monitor), and then let the market handle the rest? Suppose prisoners were entitled to choose in which prison they served their time, and the state paid per prisoner on a cost-plus-profit basis? Presumably, the prisoners would choose the less brutal prisons. We can imagine that prisoners would get to move prisons periodically to avoid bait-and-switch tactics, as well.

This would also relieve some of the pressure of prisoner mistreatment administrative complaints and lawsuits that the right is always complaining about. The problem with these fundamentally is that prisoners are not terribly trustworthy and have all the incentive in the world to lie and bring frivolous charges, so it’s not as if the courts and higher-up officials can just believe them, but there is lots of actual abuse of prisoners, and so it’s really unjust and cruel to pass things like the Prison Litigation Reform Act that impair the access of genuinely mistreated prisoners to the courts. But if prisoners could simply move away from mistreatment, a market solution rather than a legal solution, that problem would be resolved. We can imagine that prisoners would be charged some nominal cost to move — perhaps some money from their prison account, perhaps an extra month on their sentences — to deter frivolous moves.

There might be consequences for prison choice that wouldn’t be an issue for school choice, like people choosing the prisons in which their fellow gang members were also incarcerated. But, assuming those problems could be resolved, is there any reason in principle why those who support school vouchers shouldn’t also support prison vouchers?

This idea developed at about 4am in a conversation with fabulous friends Yin Yin and Shazad, but the matcha tea gets all the credit.

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9 Responses to “If you support school vouchers, should you also support prison vouchers?”

  1. Steve M. Says:

    An interesting idea. Isn’t this basically what happens with certain white collar criminals, some extraordinarily wealthy people, and a handful of celebrities? Martha Stewart got the choice to serve her sentence in some kind of renovated country house, which the government owns and operates as a white collar prison. I can think of a number of practical problems with generalizing the practice, though. What, for example, of states with very small prison systems? How many prisons can Wyoming possibly staff? And what about women’s prisons? There are many fewer of those.

    I can, though, imagine a system in which the federal government requires the states to participate in a national prison system (How? By remedial legislation under section 5? A threat to withhold highway funds?), or a national prisoner transfer system, under which prisoners could have meaningful input into their place of imprisonment. (This actually might help facilitate rehabilitation and re-integration with the community; it’s extremely important for prisoners to maintain family and community ties.) Maybe the prisoners can accrue credits with good behavior?

    Also, of course, there is the fact that an enormous number of people think the state actually has a legitimate interest in making prisoners suffer. Oh, and the prison guards’ unions.

  2. Yin Yin Says:

    This is the most brilliant post I have ever read. Why the hell wasn’t I cited?

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    haha, Yin Yin, I think I shall have to edit to add an amusing citation.

  4. Michael Drake Says:

    Incentives schmincentives. Only by getting the federal government out of our schools can we thwart Obama’s plan to euthanize Sarah Palin’s baby.

  5. Ryan Says:

    Can we stipulate that all prisons must meet a mininum standard of unpleasantness? No bars, no strip clubs, no masseuses? Prisons have to be regulated in such a way as to only try to entice prisoners in a negative manner by giving them protection from aggressive coercion or having to suffer under sub-standard facilities and not in a positive way by offering awesome meals and extra comfy beds (or the like).

    Another concern is that ‘prison switches’ on a mass scale might present serious escape risks would probably cost a lot in themselves because the state would have to foot the bill to make the switches possible (even if the prisoners technically owe the state the money, i doubt the system will pay for itself), whereas in the market the cost of switching products falls on the buyer.

  6. Steve M. Says:

    Another vaguely-relevant fact: Federal prisons already are much, much better than some states’ prisons, so much so that in some places they actually call it “club fed.” People will actively try to ensure, by plea bargain or whatever, that they get sent to the federal pen and not state prison. Would you make any predictions about the quality of prisons in states where this happens? Maybe the most sophisticated prisoners — the ones with (possibly ill-gotten) money, knowledge of the system, who can actually get a better deal, etc. — who could most effectively complain about abuses exit the state system, making the remaining state prisoners less able to resist and therefore even more prone to abuse. Conversely, the federal prisons get better. Would you predict that prisons in jurisdiction X get measurably worse once the feds open a prison that accepts prisoners from X? Or once the feds start spending more money on prosecutions? Would any effect depend on there being a significant disparity in quality to begin with?

  7. Kenny Says:

    1) My first concern is Ryan’s: the system you describe creates a market incentive to make prisons as pleasant as possible. It’s punishment. We don’t want it to be pleasant, we just want it to be humane.

    2) Strict libertarians don’t believe that we should have a government-run or -funded education system at all. However, as a libertarian I would say that the main reason I think a voucher system would be an improvement over the current system is that it would decrease government control of curriculum. (It wouldn’t alleviate the libertarians’ main concern, which is that it is wrong to coerce people who hate children, such as yourself, to pay for the education of other people’s children.) All education necessarily involves a degree of indoctrination, and by the time you get down to Kindergarten you are dealing with pupils who have very little ability at critical thinking, so that you basically can’t distinguish education from indoctrination. As such, when government controls the curriculum it gains a kind of control over its citizens’ thought processes and beliefs that frightens libertarians. It should frighten liberals too: the vast majority of people in this country want their children to have a religious education. There are only two things preventing them from forming a large enough voting block to do it: (1) some of them actually believe in separation of church and state, and (2) they can’t agree on what kind of religious education children should have. (Of course, this sort of thing is also why we have a constitutionally limited republic; many localities have already voted for religious education in public schools, but they’ve been overruled by courts.) This type of concern doesn’t apply to prisons.

    3) The operation of prisons is, from the libertarian perspective, one of the legitimate functions of government. I suppose there is no principled reason why we couldn’t use contractors if that really produced better results (and I’m sure many libertarians believe that it would), but there is nothing about libertarian political theory as such that says we need to get government out of prisons, the way we need to get government out of education.

  8. Mike Says:

    What happens when a bad prisoner enters a good private prison? You’d have to solve that problem by having Problem Prisons. So there’s be a presumption of a choice of prison.

    Anyway, yeah, it’s an idea I’d support.

    An addition to your idea: A prisoner can earn larger vouchers for good behavior. So a model prisoner would have more “money” to upgrade to a nicer prison.

  9. Stuart Buck Says:

    Interesting idea!

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