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March 29, 2013

In case you hadn’t noticed, the U.S. prison-industrial complex is out of control.  With 0.7% of the U.S. population incarcerated at any given moment, we have by the far the highest incarceration rates of any country within the OECD.   As of 2008, we were spending $75B annually on keeping all these people locked up.


Obviously, the criminal justice system fails on multiple fronts – non-violent offenders serve way too much time, recidivism rates are absurdly high, etc….  Detailing the numerous failings of our system is not the point of this post.


Rather, the intent is to propose a new approach for reducing prison expenditures and saving.  The proposal is as follows:  Instead of incarcerating non-violent offenders, pay them a modest salary to renounce their U.S. citizenship and permanently move to a willing host country.


Here’s an example of how this would work.  Bill is caught and convicted of selling drugs.  At this point, he may choose between serving out his prison sentence and moving to Nigeria.  Bill chooses to move to Nigeria, at which point he will be paid a salary of $5K annually for life.  Since the per capita income in Nigeria is $2.5K, Bill enjoys a standard of living far above the typical Nigerian.  In addition, the typical inmate has 12 years of schooling vs. the average Nigerian who has 9 years of schooling.  All of sudden, Bill is a member of the educated class, positioning himself to attain the better jobs offered in Nigerian society.  As Bill has renounced U.S. citizenship, he may never return to the U.S.  Moreover, Bill would find a return the U.S. unprofitable, as his weekly paychecks are only accessible at specified locations in Nigeria.


Nigeria agrees to this for a few reasons.  First, the U.S. and Nigeria authorities carefully screen each prisoner to determine his or her suitability for the free world.  Sociopaths and crime leaders will not be released.  Second, Nigeria receives a lump sum payment for each inmate they accept.  Combined with each inmate’s annual stipend from the U.S., the Nigerian economy benefits handsomely.  Finally, whereas Bill is a liability to U.S. society, he may actually become socially productive in a place where


U.S. policy makers pursue because this because it’s fiscally responsible and humane.  Here’s my extremely rudimentary estimate of the cost per prisoner.  For each sentence, the average non-violent offender serves 2.2 years at a cost of $29K per year.  A Bureau of Justice Statistics puts the three year recidivism rate at 25%.    Parole typically costs $1.4K per released prisoner and people stay on parole for ~150% of their time served.


Criminal Justice Expense

Cost ($K)

2.2 years at $29K per year

 $    63.80

3 years probation at $1.4K per year

 $       4.50

25%  chance of serving another term

 $    15.95

25% chance of additional probation

 $       1.13

25% chance of serving another term

 $       3.99


 $    89.36


At its most obvious minimum, the basic cost of a single non-violent offender is $90K.  Obviously, this ignores the cost to the court system, the victims of those who re-offend.  If you take a more comprehensive look over a career criminal’s lifetime, the cost is far higher.  A 1997 paper found total lifetime cost to society of ~$1.35M.  About ~$950K is victim cost, $50K of “offender productivity lost” and $350K in “criminal justice costs”.  As you can see, there’s very little certainly about how much criminals actually cost society.


For now, let’s be very conservative and use typical lifetime criminal justice costs of $100K.


[An aside here – it’s surprising that massive longitudinal studies of the U.S. prison population don’t exist.  I couldn’t find any study tracking large cohorts of one time criminals over their lifetime.]


The average age of an inmate is around 40.  Let’s be generous and assume this high risk population has another 30 years of life remaining.  Using a 5% discount rate, 30 years of $5K payments has a present value of $78K.    Assuming, it would cost another $10K to transport the individual and get all the paperwork done, we’re have $12K to bribe the host country into accepting our criminals.  We’ve now spend $100K to get a minimum of $100K in direct benefits.


The less tangible impacts bring the most benefits.  First, self-deported felons can no longer re-offend in the U.S., saving potential victims millions of dollars.  Second, they can no longer leave prison, have unprotected sex, commit another crime, and leave yet another generation of American boys and girls without active parents. Third, some of these individuals might find a fresh start really does give them some hope.  Soon enough the U.S. might have stronger economic ties with Nigeria, Cameroon, Paraguay or other willing host countries.


What do you think?  Is this absurd or worth a try?


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