Monday, December 6, 2010

Getting Specific

In a post by Keith Humphreys at the RBC, I was referred to a study done on reducing incarceration offense rates.  Humphreys framed his original post in response by a claim from Supreme Court Justice Alito that, were  California to release 40,000 non-violent offenders as a response to overcrowding, there would be a definitive increase in crime rates.  Humphreys asks instead:

(1) “Are 40,000 prisoners who have served their sentence in a grossly overcrowded and inhumane prison system more likely to re-offend than are 40,000 prisoners who have served their sentence in adequately staffed and resourced prisons?”
(2) “If we had reduced the prison population by putting 40,000 low-risk people on their way to prison into high quality community correction systems instead, would the crime rate have been lower two years from now than it will after we have massed released 40,000 people who have spent years in grossly overcrowded, inhumane prisons?”.
I wondered whether the effects of incarceration  vs. more limited penalties (such as probation, parole, etc.)  had been studied.  My hypothesis would be that incarceration would introduce negative or criminal behaviors into many otherwise non-violent or relatively harmless offenders.  I was then pointed here.  The study's abstract:
The California Department of Corrections (CDC) has big problems. It houses more prisoners than any other state’s corrections system: 160,000 inmates in 33 prisons and over 50 other facilities. The costs are enormous, including an average of about $30,000 per inmate per year and about $150,000 for each new cell built. The prisons are also very difficult to run. Each year about 25% of the inmates engage in some form of misconduct serious enough to document, and 2.5% commit an offense that would probably be a felony in the outside world.
One of the ways in which the CDC attempts to make the best use of its resources is to assign
prisoners to facilities with varying levels of “security.” Higher levels of security place more
restrictions on inmates because greater human and physical resources are brought to bear. There
are higher staff to inmate ratios and physical surroundings that reduce the chances of serious
infractions. For example, in some high security facilities, inmates are housed one to a cell and are
only allowed into the exercise yard in small groups. However, higher security facilities are more
costly to build and run. It is important, therefore, to place each inmate in the least restrictive setting necessary to insure the well-being of that inmate, other inmates, and CDC personnel.
This paper discusses the implementation of a very large, randomized field experiment testing two
different procedures through which inmates could be assigned to facilities with different security
levels. By most any measure, the experiment was implemented in a textbook fashion and led to
useful results. The question addressed is how this success was achieved.
Reading the study’s emphasis on identifying more important placement factors, I was struck by how similar I’ve often thought our approach in education should be. In my opinion, the achievement-gap is entirely socio-economic, and our public schools are largely based on a model that doesn’t take SES into account.

Just as the study awarded inmates points for particular aspects of their situation, and then assigned them accordingly, so to ought a nimble educational system work. Students and parents would be given points according to levels of human and social capital (determined by assessment and analysis). Their score would then place them into a particular neighborhood school, or at the very least a special program within the school, that is then designed to target the child’s educational/psychological/social, etc. need.

This approach would present a number of challenges, but I think it would solve far more. I recently heard the term “pragmatic egalitarianism”. I would describe this model as such. Currently, we assume that every child can succeed (and that every teacher can help them achieve it), out of a false sense of egalitarianism. But the reality is that every child cannot succeed, owing to a plethora of known risk-factors that can be identified and predicted from with a high degree of accuracy. So our lofty intentions end up hurting a lot more children than we could have helped by implementing a more restrictive, albeit structured and interventionist approach. Done in the right way, schools targeting those with low levels of human and social capital would provide an incredibly efficient means of implementing crucial remedial and support services.

I suppose the great irony here would be the insight into a nimble approach to the public education achievement gap coming from an analysis of the department of corrections, especially as we know the strong correlation between low academic performance and incarceration rates.

No comments:

Post a Comment