For most, prison is the default solution to crime, but some experts question this approach. Imprisonment does not have to be the only answer. Learning about alternative solutions proposed by innovative researchers can kick start much-needed discussion on this topic.
Daniel D’amico, the William Barnett professor of free enterprise studies and assistant professor of economics at Loyola University, is one such researcher. D’Amico applies public choice theory and free-market economic perspectives to criminal punishment.
His dissertation, “The Imprisoner’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Proportionate Punishment,” earned him the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics‘ Israel M. Kirzner Award for best dissertation in Austrian economics. He discussed the many facets of the prison problem in an email Q&A.
Do you think Connecticut’s early release program is likely to work and, if so, why? Do you think it goes far enough?
I’m very sympathetic and hopeful to these sorts of release programs. If we are going to limit and alleviate the social problems of prison growth we have to discover good ways to manage release safely and justly. I’m currently looking at historical studies associated with the closures of the Gulag and Concentration camp systems to garner applicable insight for our own challenges.
The main concern with these programs is the political process and what economists call availability bias. It probably took a lot of political effort to get this program or anything like it off the ground, all could be quickly reversed with a few anecdotal stories of recidivism if they happen. Criminal X gets released and re-offends and the public perceives a fear of trying these programs ever again in the future.
What are some less costly alternatives to the modern prison system, or, what changes could be made to the existing system?
As for many complex questions of political economy, the answer is “it depends.” It depends first on your operating presumptions behind the purposes and supposed intentions of prisons and incarcerations. If, for example, you believe that there is a legitimate and or necessary public role of government and or politics to impose ex post punishment as a reaction to criminal behavior then incarceration is probably most useful and necessary for extremely violent criminals and or those individuals who pose an active threat to the welfare and safety of innocent citizens. Potential alternatives could be controlled living environments, probation, house arrest, even the death penalty.
For other crimes such as drug violation, incarceration is harder to justify. So many more alternatives are on the table rehabilitation, medical treatment fines, or even total decriminalization.
If on the other hand incarceration is thought of more abstractly as a strategy to resolve the social problems associated with crime, then anything which diminishes crime and its associated costs could substitute away from the supposed need of prisons and incarceration such as better education, more vibrant forms of civil association, better technologies and institutions for the private enforcement of property rights, etc.
What are the primary concerns regarding the prison problem – the social costs, the economic costs, etc.? Do you think both the social and economic costs go hand in hand? How?
The economic costs are clearly noted in the Bureau of Justice statistics for anyone to look up and see for themselves. In most states it costs about as much to incarcerate an individual human for a year as many prestigious colleges charge for annual tuition. The social costs are harder to pin down as the result of removing significant portions of the young black male population have led to very lopsided communities in urban environments. Such has had ripple effects upon the family structure, religious and civic organization forms in those neighborhoods.
Together, these costs, along with the democratic tendencies to not gauge criminal justice resources in response to changes in real crime rates suggest that this trend is fiscally and socially unsustainable.
Why do you think there has been much opposition to prison reform and do you think this tide is turning? If it isn’t quite yet, how can it?
I think most people are very culturally conditioned to rely upon incarceration as the predominant response to crime. It takes a lot of creativity and complex critical thinking to understand the social processes associated with excessive incarceration. So prison reform tends to invoke thoughts that criminals are getting off easy.
Drug war reform is gaining a lot more public attention. People are updating that addiction is more a medical than a criminal issue and we see public opinion polling supporting this more and more year after year.
What would a free market solution to prisons or the prison problem look like?
Some have argued that insurance companies could be configured to serve as a sort of free market criminal justice system. Such would require a change in the motivation of criminal justice more generally from retribution to restitution. Currently restorative justice proposals seem very compatible with free market principles as far as they can be applied in our imperfect system today.
What are the prison stories no one is talking about?
Some of my current research is trying to investigate the relationship between incarceration rates and economic performance by investigating how legal systems in different countries were historically organized as a consequence of their nation of colonial origin. In all other measures of correlation, common law nations tend to have small governments and civil law countries large state powers. In the criminal justice realm and terms of prison populations this relationship is reversed. The criminal law was implemented after the common law had already evolved to operate to govern tort procedures where constraints on government developed and worked well, but almost no similar constraints or checks and balances were implemented in the newly developed criminal justice realm.
To learn more about D’amico’s work, visit: