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May 22, 2014

Everyone pays for crime, from the victims to all the rest of us whose taxes go for police, courts, parole and probation officers, incarceration of criminals etc. Obviously the best way to control crime is to adopt plans and policies that reduce its incidence. We taxpayers, for instance, pay billions of dollars annually for incarceration of convicts. If we could reduce crime, we could reduce the number of victims and save enormous amounts of money that we otherwise spend on incarceration of criminals, not to mention that we would also reduce the number of criminals who could be free to have jobs and contribute to our economy rather than milk it. I have read that it costs more money to keep a prisoner in prison than it would cost to pay for his/her education at Harvard University! The technical term used for repeat offenders who again go to prison is recidivism. Our task? Reduce recidivism.
In a recent article (The Great American Chain Gang) in the May-June edition of The American Prospect, Beth Schwartzapfel pools a number of studies which deal with recidivism, and as she writes: “Study after study has found what common sense would suggest: Prisoners who gain professional skills while locked up, and those who earn a decent wage for their work, are far less likely to end up back behind bars.” That would save us state and federal taxpayers billions. However, with the world’s highest incarceration rate here in America, if we paid minimum (much less prevailing) wages to prisoners for their work, it would be a bridge too far (per state and federal prison authorities). State legislatures are a vengeful lot. Some will not allow a convict out of jail to vote, so it is unlikely that they would appropriate funding for minimum wage to be paid convicts who work while in jail, even though study after study shows an immense drop in recidivism in the few jurisdictions where convicts are paid a decent wage while in jail. So we have a choice based upon such research: We can pay now or pay later – after another crime or crimes has been committed. Perhaps what I learned in law school should actually and truly be practiced, to wit: “The purpose of the criminal law is not to punish but to rehabilitate” – saves money, too.
Schwartzapfel notes that about half of the people in prison work either in or (as supervised) out of prison while incarcerated, from kitchens and laundries to road gangs. Their median wage in federal prisons is 20 cents an hour and in state prisons it is 31 cents an hour. In three states (Texas, Georgia and Arkansas – they work for nothing.) Judith Greene, director of the nonprofit group Justice Strategies, says that “Prison guards on horseback, ten-gallon hats, prisoners in their uniforms. It looks like what it is: plantation labor all over again.” Yet others call it “slavery by another name.” Whatever additional revenge state legislatures and the Congress wish to inflict upon such felons over and above the committing court’s finding and judgment of years to be served, you and I as taxpayers (however offended by criminal conduct) should, in my view, adopt a pragmatic approach to solution of our chaotic system of incarceration and release with a view toward saving huge costs paid for by our taxes and, yes, helping those jailed gain fair income while jailed so that when released they are far less likely to return to jail. There is a hard core of criminals who will be back, but research shows that most others will not. That is a win-win situation for all concerned, including you and me – less crime, less recidivism, less costs. We save money out of another pocket – research further shows that the families (including 2.7 million kids) of an incarcerated parent are far more likely to use Medicaid and SCHIP, and twice as likely to use food stamps. So who objects to such ambitious plans to save us tax money? Those in private enterprise, who say they cannot compete with goods and services made in prison, but if prisoners were paid a minimum or prevailing wage, then what is their excuse? More on this and a quick look at application of the Fair Labor Standards Act history to prison labor in Part II. Stay tuned. GERALD E

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