Tuesday, June 21, 2011
School vouchers have been proposed as a way to bypass the political pathologies of school reform and improve school quality by transforming students and parents into consumers. What if we did the same for prisons - what if convicted criminals could choose their prison rather than being assigned bureaucratically?
Under a voucher system, prisons would compete for prisoners, meaning that they will adopt policies valued by prisoners. They would be more flexible as a constitutional matter - faith-based prisons would be fully constitutional, and prisons would also have increased freedom to offer valued benefits in exchange for the waiver of constitutional rights. As far as prison quality goes, the advantages of vouchers would plausibly include greater security, decent health care, and good educational and vocational opportunities - features that are also valued by prison reformers and have rehabilitative value.
The counterarguments are twofold. “Market failure” arguments hold that, because of informational or other problems, prisoner choice would not succeed in improving overall prison quality. “Market success” arguments, on the other hand, hold that prison choice would im-prove prison quality too well, satisfying inmate preferences that are socially undesirable or diluting the deterrent value of prison. These counterarguments have substantial force, but it is still possible that these disadvantages are outweighed by the socially desirable improvements.
I conclude with thoughts about the politics of prison vouchers, both before and after their adoption.