The staggering costs of mass incarceration
Mass incarceration costs Arizona taxpayers money – a lot of money. According to a comprehensive new report published by the American Friends Service Committee, the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) annual budget is now over $1 billion, and makes up 11% of the state’s general fund. That’s an increase of 28.4% over ten years, during which time Arizona’s spending on schools, economic security, and even public safety has decreased. Arizona ranks fourth highest among all 50 states in the percentage of total general fund expenditures on corrections.
All Arizona taxpayers pay for DOC, but not all Arizonans make the decisions that drive mass incarceration. On the contrary those decisions rest with just fifteen prosecutors, elected at the county level who have no term limits, and some of whom have held office for decades. They have near total discretion to ease or aggravate the problem of mass incarceration in Arizona. But neither they nor even their voters pay much of the costs of the decisions they make – everybody else does. It is a classic example of the economic theory of negative externalities, meaning the person responsible for a particular action does not bear the cost of that action. Much like nuclear waste, the $1 billion expense of mass incarceration in Arizona harms us all, but it is generated by a very few.
Making mass incarcerators pay their way
Last year Michael McLaughlin, an economic researcher out of Washington University in St. Louis, proposed an intriguing solution to the negative externality problem of mass incarceration. McLaughlin’s paper, “Using a Pigouvian Tax to Reduce Incarceration,” argues that,
Local actors have considerable discretion whether to conduct a search, make an arrest, charge a person with a crime, classify a crime as a misdemeanor or felony, or issue a lengthy prison sentence…One way to correct this negative externality is with a Pigouvian tax. Charging local governments on a per-prisoner basis for the cost of incarceration could induce local actors to internalize the externality and reduce the number of prison admissions.”
A “Pigouvian tax,” named after English economist Arthur Pigou, is just a fancy way of describing a local tax that would apply to the party that generates negative externalities, and would require them to pay the costs of those externalities. An example would be taxing industrial polluters the cost of cleaning up pollution and treating medical issues it causes.
According to DOC, as of February 2017, 12.6% of Arizona prisoners were from Pima County.
If we were to fund the $1 billion Arizona DOC budget with a Pigouvian tax, Pima County residents would pay an additional $126 million in county taxes.
I suspect that if a $126 million tax increase proposal came before the Pima County Board of Supervisors, it would be deeply unpopular. However that should not stop us from considering the justice of McLaughlin’s proposal. Why shouldn’t the people who drive mass incarceration be forced to pay for it, and forced to justify their policies when the economic fallout hits the taxpayers who elected them? Two of the fundamental tenets of conservative government are personal responsibility and paying your own way. Our elected officials, and indeed ourselves, should assume the responsibility of paying for the policies we advocate for. Perhaps it is only when we are required to pay for mass incarceration out of our own pockets that we will demand its end, loudly and permanently.
– Joel Feinman