Go Directly to Jail, Pay $200

The NYT reveals that in California, you can pay to go to a ‘nice’ jail.

For offenders whose crimes are usually relatively minor (carjackers should not bother) and whose bank accounts remain lofty, a dozen or so city jails across the state offer pay-to-stay upgrades. Theirs are a clean, quiet, if not exactly recherché alternative to the standard county jails, where the walls are bars, the fellow inmates are hardened and privileges are few.

Many of the self-pay jails operate like the secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world. You have to be in the know to even apply for entry, and even if the court approves your sentence there, jail administrators can operate like bouncers, rejecting anyone they wish.

“I am aware that this is considered to be a five-star Hilton,” said Nicole Brockett, 22, who was recently booked into one of the jails, here in Orange County about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and paid $82 a day to complete a 21-day sentence for a drunken driving conviction. 

The inequity here is pretty stark. Indeed, if you can buy yourself a lighter punishment, then presumably the judge should take that into account when setting the sentence. On the other hand, regular jails often have nasty effects on inmates that courts don’t factor into their sentences. Prison rape (so often satirised in Hollywood movies – why?) is one of the worst. If the advent of upmarket jails can reduce the total number of assaults that take place behind bars, that’d be a powerful reason for allowing them.

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15 Responses to Go Directly to Jail, Pay $200

  1. Pingback: CoreEcon » Blog Archive » Paying for crime

  2. Pingback: Club Troppo » The more things change . . .

  3. laughoutloud says:

    Really Andrew, so I guess if you can’t pay for an upgrade, then rape in jail becomes just another aspect of the ‘choice’ available under the new dispensation. I guess the bag snatchers can reflect on that, and the embezzlers of millions can be congratulated on their foresight in choosing both their crime and their parents. It is perfectly appropriate that the law treat bag snatchers differently from say, the owners and operators of HIH and sundry other enterprises, where the exuberance just got a little, well, exuberant.

    It is hard to know whether laughing out loud is still appropriate as the 19th century returns to every aspect of social and economic policy. I haven’t seen a better example of the meaning of contemporary trends than this, other than plans to import a disenfranchised working class, which shpould ensure that these trends become ensconced into the current political arrangements. Thanks. It shouldn’t be long now till we are back to the proper place, somewhere around 1832, prior to the first factory Acts, and the first moves to enfranchise the worrisome classes.

    I guess though that there will be plenty of young smarties to write elegant proofs demonstrating the impossibility of any other kind of arrangments, this side of chaos and anarchy. Oh dear oh dearie me.

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    LOL, is your view that if we can’t prevent all prison rapes, we shouldn’t prevent rich kids from being raped in jail?

  5. laughoutloud says:

    Nice try, Mr Leigh. Here’s a thought though.

    Perhaps in the 21st century, we might be able to devise an incarceration system where nobody is raped. I am sure smarties like you could put your shoulder to the wheel and demonstrate ways in which this might be done, rather than celebrating a system where the poor are punished twice-once by incaceration, and then by sexual assault, because they don’t have enough money to buy physical security after they have been incarcerated. It’s nice to know that sexual assault whilst under the state supervision is something that you believe is funny, and furthermore, something that only those able to ‘pay’ should be able to buy ‘protection’ from. You are a disgrace.

    If you cannot see the illiberal, authoritarian and profoundly anti democratic assumptions underpinning both the original story, and your very silly reply, you are more trivial than even I thought possible, and you have proved my point very nicely. Thanks.

  6. Andrew Leigh says:

    LOL, I’m not sure that your ad hominem comments are making your argument any stronger. I’ve never argued that rape in prison is funny. Quite the opposite – as I alluded to in the post, I find it appalling that it gets satirised in Hollywood movies.

    But as David Heilpern’s excellent book, “Fear or Favour” makes clear, there aren’t simple answers to reducing prisoner sexual assult. Which is why I would have thought that a change that prevents some rapes is better than the status quo.

    On the more general topic of how an economic researcher can reduce the incidence of prisoner rape, I’m certainly interested in it; but after spending half a week reading the literature on this issue last year, I didn’t think I had much to contribute. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of work to be done – it’s just that I’m not sure that working on this issue is my comparative advantage.

  7. laughoutloud says:

    I am sure it isn’t to your comparative advantage, since the rent seekers that employee the best research money can buy, in order to have the best policies that money might enjoy, are hardly going to be interested in paying a motza for robust research that might actually improve our democratic performance, as opposd to further degrading it. After all, what’s the point in the hired help if they don’t help eh?

  8. Andrew Leigh says:

    LOL, it’s clear that you’re not really interested in engaging with the issues, so let me give you a tip for debate: if you don’t understand what comparative advantage means, then you probably want to avoid economic jargon like rent-seeking. You may feel more comfortable just calling me a ‘bourgeois capitalist running dog’, which I think is about the level of debate you’ve settled into.

  9. Damien Eldridge says:

    Andrew, while the “going in a tight end, coming out a wide reciever” jokes are amusing when you first hear them, to the extent that they have validity it does represent a problem for the State. It seems to me that Prisoners are owed a duty of care in the same fashion as any other dependent. Their sentence involves the deprivation of liberty, not being brutally assaulted.

    In terms of rich people being able to buy a cushier place to serve their time when poor people cannot, I think that raises issues about the nature of the sentence. If you believe the dollar is a dollar assumption implicit in the Kaldor-Hicks criterion, then this sounds reasonable. This essentially assumes that everyone has the same MU of income. (Since we are making interpersonal utility comparisons, I will ignore the question of how utility is measured.) If, on the other hand, you believe that the MU of income is a decreasinf function of wealth, then this policy reduces the effective sentence of rich people compared to poor people. I think that aspect of it could well be undesirable. It suggests that people are no longer equal before the law. Now this is already true to some extent (especially in the US, since rich people can afford better lawyers. But this would just exacerbate the problem.

  10. ABC says:

    And Damien, as well as people being unequal before the law, there might be incentive effects of such a policy with regards to political outcomes. If you assume that there are ways of running jails which cost little but prevent rape, but that these procedures aren’t currently being used because politicians and their wealthy benefactors have little incentive to look after jailed criminals welfare but lots of incentive to appear ‘tough on crime’, then you might prefer a system where wealthy people COULDN’T pay to avoid being raped. This would speed up the gradual improvement in prison conditions (or, since we’re talking about a potential policy here, prevent a decline in prison conditions for non-wealthy criminals). So unequalness might be bad not only for it’s own sake, but for the instrumental values in terms of determining prison conditions through the political process. Or some such

    Relating this point to the key line, “If the advent of upmarket jails can reduce the total number of assaults that take place behind bars, that’d be a powerful reason for allowing them”: if your opinion is that inequality in jail treatment on the basis of wealth would skew political incentives away from looking after (non-wealthy) prisoners, then it might be true that upmarket jails actually INCREASE the total number of assaults. An empirical question and probably impossible to answer after the fact, let alone a priori.

  11. Christine says:

    ABC: that’d be equivalent of arguments about a two-tiered (public and private) health system, right? Not sure there’s much empirical support for that story (? I’m not particularly au courant, though), and I’d think there’d be even less likelihood of it occurring in the case of prisons.

    The bigger problem there is that a whole lot of people just don’t think or care about prisoners at all, and most people don’t know anyone in prison or expect to end up there themselves, which is ultimately the motivation in the case of the public medical system story. Prisons are for the ‘bad/evil’ people that society wants to punish. And that means conditions should be absolutely horrible in there. That’ll deter people from committing crimes, of course. Except if it’s one of their friends done in for the ‘minor’ crime of drink driving. In which case it’s an outrage to treat them like an ‘ordinary’ prisoner.

    (Please note: these are not my opinions, they’re a characterisation of a way of thinking about prisons and prisoners, that I think mitigates against the polecon story actually working out.)

    This type of class distinction in sentencing and treatment in prison has been going on a long long time. I suspect complete equality of treatment is simply impossible to achieve in any system that tries to stress punishment. At least making people who are going to take advantage of this pay $ for it might help get a bit more money back into the prisons system?

    But ABC’s right: I doubt very very much you’d ever be able to figure out a good empirical test of this proposition, even if you tried randomised experiments at the state level in the US – which will never happen. Which would pretty much be Andrew’s point that as an empirical economist, there’s not much hope he can contribute in this area.

    So that means it’s up to you, Damien!

  12. ABC says:

    “that’d be equivalent of arguments about a two-tiered (public and private) health system, right?”

    That was exactly what I was thinking of (although I hadn’t thought of it yet ;). And, RE lack of empirical support, my uninformed gut feeling agrees… there just aren’t enough people jailed for the majority of the population to know/care about prison conditions. Mind you, one high profile case might do the trick… (pick your most despised politician??)


  13. Marcia says:

    “If the advent of upmarket jails can reduce the total number of assaults that take place behind bars, that’d be a powerful reason for allowing them.”

    Would upmarket jails reduce the total incidence of jail assaults, or would it merely confine the assaults to the poorer section of the jail population who cannot afford an upmarket jail?

    With respect to the prisoners who pay to go to a posh jail, I imagine their risk of assault would decline as one would expect these jails would a) provide greater protection against other inmates and b) refuse entry to/evict prisoners with a history of violence against other prisoners. But for those who remain in standard jail, I can’t see how removing the most wealthy and docile prisoners will reduce the total number of assaults. Intuitively I’d suggest that any assaults avoided by an individual moving to a upmarket jail will simply be redistributed among the remaining prison population. Of course, if anyone has any empirical evidence to the contrary I’d be interested to hear it.

  14. Andrew Leigh says:

    ABC & Marcia – I agree with you that whether upmarket jails reduced the total number of assaults is an empirical issue. If it increased total assaults, it would be a powerful argument against them.

    My reasoning was just based on first principles: reducing the supply of easy-target victims should increase the ‘price’ of sexual assault (either because the remaining prisoners are a bit more likely to fight back, or simply because fewer inmates means that it’s harder to engineer a situation in which to perform an assualt). Assuming that the demand for sexual assaults is somewhat elastic, that increase in the price should correspondingly lead to a fall in the quantity. Of course, if demand is perfectly inelastic, then the quantity won’t change – so as you say, it’s an empirical question.

  15. Lola says:

    Damn, you really owned that LaughOutLoud poster.

    Well done, comrade. Truly, high-minded blogging there.

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