I find the concept of efficiency interesting as I think about the overcrowded prisons in our America.  Efficiency, defined by Stone as “getting the most for the least, or achieving an objective for the lowest cost.”   What does this look like in corrections?

What is the purpose of the correctional system?  If you have a criminal justice perspective you most likely will respond with a phrase similar to “keep society safe.”  Someone with a background in the social science arena is more likely to say, “to provide programming/treatment to the offender in order to “rehabilitate” them so they can be productive tax-paying citizens of society.”  Staying with the concept of efficiency, how is our current criminal justice system fulfilling either of these responses?

The challenge with the criminal justice system is that once you have your first encounter it can be hard to be set free from the cycle.  Upon a first conviction you are often held responsible to pay both court fines and DMV fees.  If your license has been suspended you cannot drive for the duration of the suspension accompanied by the fines being paid, or at a minimum, a payment plan arranged.  As a result, many driving on suspended offenders continue to drive as a means of daily operation.

Here is one example of why I am perplexed by the concept of efficiency and corrections.  Is it efficient for a habitual offender to serve two years in jail because they were caught driving on a suspended license?  Most often people who are driving on a suspended license get “found out” by (9 out of 10 times) something minor while (usually) driving to work or some other very natural daily task.  They most often get the cops attention for something as minor as: expired tags, a burnt out brake light, rolling through a stop sign, etc.  (All of which I have been guilty of).  Consider this, if it were a more serious crime in which they were arrested they would be sitting in jail for more than just a driving conviction.

I am in no way advocating for not following the law.  Clearly, “doing the right thing” is a necessity for those who do not want to end up in the justice system.  My point is this.  On average it costs $25,000 a year to house an offender.  While fulfilling this sentence the offender has lost their job (if they even had one), often times they develop high relational problems with friends and family, are no longer able to pay the mortgage (if they had been), and are housed with hardened criminals (which we know from research only makes an individual a harder criminal…even if they were not a “criminal” to begin with).  So, after two years taxpayers have paid $50,000 for an offender serving a two-year sentence for driving on a suspended license.  Were they really a danger to society to begin with?  Likewise, the individual serving the sentence has lost two years of their life, have not improved their employability, and surely are not in a healthier financial state post incarceration.  Yet, they still have those court fines and DMV fees to pay.  Do we call this rehabilitation?

Does this sound like efficiency to you?  In this example does it sound like society or the offender is “getting the most for the least?” or “achieving an objective for the lowest cost?” Assuming our objective for corrections is to either “keep society safe” or “rehabilitate an offender,” I am not convinced our correctional system works with efficiency.  What are your thoughts?


6 thoughts on “Efficiency

  1. Agreed! I have contact with offenders everyday. I work in the area of Child Protective Services and many individuals and families involved with the system are also involved in the corrections systems at some point in life or regarding the CPS involvement. I find (as an intern) that the corrections system is a “revolving door”…there is no rehabilitation happening within our (the United States) system. AND THERE HAS NOT BEEN FOR A LONG TIME! Unfortunately, our system punishes (and everyone else pays) and does not prevent future events of incarceration from happening. This is not only unfair to society but to the offending individual as well. In some instances gives the offending individual a “free ride”.

  2. Very compelling argument, and well laid out. But we live in a capitalistic, profit driving machine, how do we make sense of this supposed waste of money?

    From my research on the PIC, the answer lies in that prisons are money making enterprises. This is very complex (and frankly, too loaded with economic terms and numbers and fancy mathematics.)

    But lets consider how prisons make money:
    1). Sell inmate labor: prisoners are given a coerced choice when it comes to working, and are paid fractions of real wages.
    2). Prisons often charge inmates and families with fines and hidden fees (our local jail costs $1 a day, hidden fees and expenses in phone calls, expensive commissary products).
    3). Private prisons seek to maximize profit (leasing beds to federal, state, and local department of corrections, selling slave labor) while minimizing costs (reduce the number of guards/workers, replace paid civilian labor with prison labor, reduce programs like medical care and nutrition. Private prisons secure a steady flow of inmates by working to pass criminalizing legislation (ALEC). Local, state, and federal jurisdictions rent out prison beds to other areas, or compete for prisoners to collect rent/associated costs from another department (individuals staying in jail as opposed to transfer to prison if the local sheriff’s office knows they can keep securing funds from the state Department of Corrections.)
    4). In troubled economic times, the construction of a new prison gives a temporary boost to the economy. In rural areas that face economic crisis as agriculture and resources collection becomes less profitable, outsourced, and more tightly regulated, building a prison increases revenue and providing jobs (check out ‘Up the Ridge’ if you haven’t already).

  3. You are right. This is not an efficient means of using tax dollars or expending human capital. The example provided shows a greater harm to society than benefit. While I agree that those breaking the law do need to be punished there should be other means of punishing them, specifically in regards to the DMV example that you shared.
    The reality is that the prisons are over crowded, especially with non-violent offenders. Laws exist for a reason (most of them) and should be respected. However, there are alternatives to incarceration that should be explored.

  4. This really brings to mind the rational choice perspective that we talked about in class this week. On the one hand, we’re saying that we are looking out for the greater good of all by protecting society from criminals and keeping them from reoffending but we are systematically creating new laws and ways to incarcerate people for petty offenses. Somebody is clearly protecting their own interests and believe me, they’re making a mint from doing it. Just as Corrections Corporation of America. http://www.cnbc.com/id/48675641/Prisons_for_Profit_Donrsquot_Hope_for_a_Breakout

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