Economic Freedom for Federal Courts: Prison Vouchers
Government organizations and institutions don’t operate under these rules of law. Instead, a government institutions, though they benefit from voluntary compliance with regulations, rely on force or the threat of force. An example are public schools funded by taxes and requiring students to attend through truancy regulations (though not in Texas anymore: “Texas decriminalizing students’ truancy“).
Private schools are allowed to operate as well, but parents are compelled to pay taxes to government schools even when their children attend private schools, or are homeschooled.
|Link to Prison Voucher law review article|
One fairly new government policy allows some choice within the public school system, and that is school vouchers. Taxes are still extracted from all taxpayers, but parents have some choice in deciding which school their children will attend. The tax-supported funds follow the student to the school they and their parents choose.
A similar choice system could work for prisons as well, according to legal scholars.
Competition among government schools creates competition among school administrators and teachers to provide higher quality services, or face losing customers (students) to other schools. Some states allow private schools to compete as well, and allow tax-supported vouchers to follow students to private and church schools. In Nevada, for example,
[June 3, 2015] Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even for home schooling.
An April Washington Post article reported on (I think) a separate school choice legislation:
Nevada’s legislature has passed a law meant to help low-income students pay for private schools, making the Silver State the latest in a growing number of states to offer private school choice programs.
The bill passed both houses on party-line votes and now heads to Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), who proposed the legislation and hailed its passage as a “great day for students across Nevada.”
The program will offer businesses a total of up to $10.5 million in tax credits over the next two years in exchange for donations to qualifying scholarship organizations. Scholarship organizations then may dole out up to $7,755 per student per year to help pay private-school tuition.
Again competition allows customers the freedom of choice between different providers of services they want. Just as they can choose which grocery store to buy food from or drug store to shop at, or cell phone service to use, they are allowed some choice in the education provider to send their children too.
What is the connection from this school choice and voucher story to the federal court system? Well, if vouchers work to improve education outcomes by providing more choice to students, maybe choice could work for prisoners as well.
After all, how different is the “Twelve Year Sentence” to the 5, 10, 15 or 20 year sentences of convicted felons? Okay, I am writing to a homeschool audience here so am maybe overdoing similarities between prison sentences and public school. (After all, prisoners don’t get summers off.)
But the economic point here is the benefit of freedom of choice both in stimulating providers of goods and services (schools and prisons), and in allowing customers (students and prisoners) some level of choice in the facilities and “instructors” who they deem most beneficial. The Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson’s 2014″The Way Forward: Scholarship Tax Credits or Vouchers?” provides background and links for further research for this ongoing school choice debate.
From School Choice and Competition to Prison Choice and Competition
The federal court system, as part of the federal criminal justice system, was not designed based on freedom of choice and voluntary cooperation and exchange. What are the goals of the federal court system? Is it discovery and delivery of justice? If so, could prison vouchers provide more justice at lower cost than the current government monopoly federal court and federal prison system?
This Washington Post opinion piece, “You’ve heard of school vouchers. How about prison vouchers?” discusses the arguments for prison vouchers, and begins:
The District’s controversial voucher program enables students to choose among bilingual schools, Montessori schools, art schools and schools that teach Latin. Could the choice-through-vouchers approach apply to other arenas? What if, for example, D.C. felons got to choose their prisons?
“Some of the same factors that led early education reformers to suggest school vouchers apply with equal, if not greater, force in the prison context,” Alexander Volokh writes in “Prison Vouchers,” an essay forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.
The idea of prison vouchers supports the arguments in the last post on Restorative Justice, “Restorative Justice for Federal Court Reform.”
A key feature of restorative justice is the central position of the victim before the rise of state-centered justice. If after an Economic Thinking workshop, somebody knocks me down, breaks by arm and steals my wallet, that used to be considered a crime against me. I would be the victim and by harming me the assailant creates a debt to me he is obligated to reimburse, once located, arrested, arraigned, charged, and convicted. His crime put him in my debt and the legal system charged him with providing justice by restoring me and society to the condition we were in before the crime. But such violence came to be considered mainly “a crime against the state,” and a violation of “the King’s peace.” Compensation that was once directed to victims was diverted to the government.
For more on this legal history, see Bruce Benson’s The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State. The Independent Institute provides highlight and an synopsis here.
Nationalizing an attack on me doesn’t help me so much. If the guy is found, convicted, and thrown into prison for five or ten years, under the status quo he will be unable to earn money to compensate me for the damage he caused. I can sue in civil court, but I’m not likely to recover damages if he is in prison (where instead of learning work skills he is likely to learn more crime skills). Plus, to add insult to injury I pay via taxes for his time in prison (and maybe for his cable television), the average cost to house federal prisoners in 2011 was $29,000. That additional federal prison expense comes from taxpayers like me.
If the federal court system were to embrace prison vouchers and other market reforms, the benefits of non-government prisons with better track records for teaching job skills and reducing recidivism would be an option for convicted criminals, but not forced upon them (private monopolies are likely to be no better than public/government monopolies).
Competition and choice benefits society as well as convicted criminals:
Under a voucher system, prisons would compete for prisoners, meaning that the prisons will adopt policies prisoners value. Prisons would become more constitutionally flexible—faith-based prisons, now of dubious legality, would be fully constitutional, and prisons would also have increased freedom to offer valued benefits in exchange for the waiver of constitutional rights. As far as prison quality goes, the advantages of vouchers would plausibly include greater security, higher-quality health care, and better educational opportunities—features that prison reformers favor for their rehabilitative value.
Here is a PBS segment on Delancey Street as an alternative to federal prison and probation. A prison voucher system might allow more convicted criminals to “serve their time” providing goods and services for others, and learning job skills. From the income they earn a portion goes to cover their food and housing, and a portion could go to compensate victims of the crimes they were earlier convicted of committing. Choice is a good thing. Monopolies suppress the learning and discovery process that is natural in market systems.