Wednesday, August 9, 2006

the costs of incarcerating those who needn't be incarcerated

criminologists often write about the costs of incarceration --generating crude estimates by multiplying the number of inmates by the per diem paid by the taxpayers. larger costs, of course, are borne by the inmates who don't really need to be there.

though i've written about the relative safety of prisons and jails, they clearly remain dangerous places to spend the night -- especially for younger arrestees and those brought in on minor charges.

carl edward moyle was booked into the sherburne county jail yesterday and was beaten to death within twelve hours. his crime was a simple traffic offense: driving without proof of insurance, which is a gross misdemeanor in minnesota for repeat offenders. his assailant was a state prison inmate awaiting trial for assaulting yet another inmate in a st. cloud penitentiary.

sherburne county sheriff bruce anderson, jail administrators, and minnesota corrections officials will surely be asked why they failed to segregate an inmate with a history of assaulting other inmates. but my question is more basic: do we really need to be locking up folks because they don't have insurance? given state variation in insurance requirements, can you think of a better example of a mala prohibita offense?

doing prison interviews, i've asked inmates "how many of these guys need to be here?" most respond with an estimate between 25 and 75 percent of their fellow residents, easily pointing out examples in each category. i suspect that the incarcerated could have distinguished between mr. moyle and his assailant. i know that few would identify traffic violators as deserving of incarceration, much less a fatal beating.

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