State Shouldn't Backpedal on Prison Reform

Thursday, March 12, 2015

There is a nervousness looming in California. The Golden State passed Proposition 47 last November – which reduced the penalty for certain nonviolent drug and theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors – with a vote of nearly 60 percent approval.

Prop. 47 represents a win-win for California. The cost savings from an estimated 40,000 fewer charges per year would mean more money for schools and drug rehabilitation programs, as well as a reduction in the overcrowding that has characterized California’s prisons since the 1970s.

Now, some proponents of Prop. 47 are resting uneasy – burglaries and thefts have recently risen in areas like Los Angeles where drug arrests have plummeted. Drug addicts have failed to enter treatment programs as was hoped, and some are concerned with releasing inmates into society, regardless of their offense. The apparent increase in burglaries and thefts is understandably a cause for concern, but California should not backpedal on positive prison reform.

Prop. 47 provides cost savings and reduces crowding, but its long-term benefits are found below the surface. Prop. 47 begins to address a deeply rooted cause of prison violence and corruption that has plagued California for decades: the brutal, yet highly organized hierarchy of prison gangs that facilitates the drug trade within prisons. Gangs are a dominant force in the penal system.

The United States is the only high-income Western country where prison gangs wield the level of control that they do in states like California – where prisons operate at nearly 140 percent of their designed capacity. This crowding has grisly effects. From 2001-12, 162 Californian inmates were killed at the hands of other prisoners, which is twice the national average.Violence is a direct result of the prison gangs that emerge as a way to control inmates and reduce conflict.

Overcrowding and the simultaneous rise of prison gangs aren’t coincidental: Gangs arise to address specific problems in the inmate social system. With the expansion of incarceration, race riots and violence began to dominate California’s prisons.

Gangs create an internal system of governance behind bars, where violence often goes unchecked and prison personnel are greatly outnumbered. Prison gangs offer protection to inmates and access to illicit trade. A number of notorious prison gangs formed in the ’60s and early ’70s, including the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerilla Family and the Mexican Mafia.

Gangs also nurture an underground drug trade that grows alongside increasing prison populations. Locking up drug users shifts their demand behind bars. In 2009, there were 50 times as many inmates in California prisons for drug offenses than there were in 1951. And as the prison population and demand for drugs behind bars grows, so do the inmates’ ability to organize a network of drug trade.

By 2002, 83 percent of inmates in America were heavily involved with alcohol or drugs. In 2013, 23 percent of randomly selected inmates tested positive for drugs, and another 30 percent refused to take the test. The illicit trade is booming, and prison gangs – which often have detailed written constitutions and procedures – are at the center of it all.

If prison reform is to be effective, it must dismantle the incentives for prison gangs to form.

Fixing a broken prison system cannot be achieved through increasing incarceration and strengthening prison gangs. Prop. 47 is a good first step on the road to reducing prison populations and liberalizing nonviolent drug offenses that, in time, will undermine the importance of prison gangs.

The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System

David Skarbek on WTOP Radio (DC)

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Feb 18, 2015
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What Can Aid Do?

December 1, 2009

Foreign aid’s advocates claim aid has been successful. Aid’s  critics claim aid has failed. We explain why both camps are correct. Aid can,  and in a few cases has, increased a particular output by devoting more resources  to its production. In this sense, aid has occasionally had limited success.  However, aid can’t, and hasn’t, contributed to the solution of economic problems and  therefore economic growth. In this much more important sense, aid  has failed.

Criminal Constitutions

July 1, 2010

Why do criminals use constitutions? This paper argues  that constitutions perform three functions in criminal organizations. By  performing these functions, constitutions facilitate criminal cooperation and  enhance criminals’ profit. To examine our hypothesis we examine the  constitutions of two criminal organizations: 18th-century Caribbean pirates and  the contemporary Californian prison gang, La Nuestra Familia.

Read the article at Global Crime.

What Aid Can’t Do

April 26, 2011

Leeson and Skarbeck respond to Gustav Ranis' main objections to their article previously published in the Cato Journal. Leeson and Sobel have two replies to Ranis’s remarks.  Leeson and Sobel have two replies to Ranis’s remarks. First, they can say unequivocally that neither of them favors a grants-for-projects approach to foreign aid. Second, they question the ability of a modified MCC to address the plight of poor people in developing countries.

Alertness, Local Knowledge, and Johnny Appleseed

December, 2009

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"Anderson and Hill argue that property rights entrepreneurs, driven by non-replicable Kirznerian alertness, identify unowned and unpriced attributes of a resource and capture rents to those resources by limiting access to them. I argue that alertness is non-replicable, but it is also not random. Kirzner’s analytical framework emphasizes an individual’s local knowledge and subjective interpretative schema. Incorporating these concepts and emphasizing two types of local knowledge, about social and commercial conditions, explains why some people are alert to profit opportunities and others are not. This implies that economic restrictions are more detrimental to entrepreneurship than previously understood. I provide evidence by examining Johnny Appleseed’s successful nursery business."

Citation (Chicago Style): Skarbek, David. "Alertness, Local Knowledge, and Johnny Appleseed." Review of Austrian Economics 22, no. 4 (2009): 415-424.

Occupational Licensing and Asymmetric Information: Post-Hurricane Evidence from Florida

November 15, 2008

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Skarbek, David. "Occupational Licensing and Asymmetric Information: Post-Hurricane Evidence from Florida." Cato Journal 28, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 73-82.

Federal, state, and county governments accept the argument that occupational licensing protects consumers and improves their welfare. This argument stands in stark contrast to the apparent rent seeking that occurs with licensing. In return for gains from state-created barriers to entry, coalitions built along occupational lines support politicians.

This article will show that government action in times of crisis is often inconsistent with its rhetoric. Licensing is typically justified on the grounds that market mechanisms will not mitigate the problems associated with asymmetric information. In the wake of Hurricanes Frances and Katrina, Florida reduced restrictions on construction contractors, yet in times of crises informational asymmetries are more likely to be problematic. By examining the volume of work completed, I find little evidence of significant detrimental effects from the policy change. Given the relative success of reducing restrictions and the government's explicit recognition of licensing's limiting effect on the availability of roofers, reform of licensing, at least to the extent done in crisis, should be adopted permanently.