'Get Out Of Jail Free' and Earlier Parole Increasingly Common
Subject Production possibility frontiers
Topic Scarcity, Choice, And Opportunity Cost
Key Words Crime rates, voters, costs
News Story

After 20 years of toughening criminal laws, several states are relaxing their laws, including those regarding minimum sentences and early parole. Most significantly, California's voter initiative provides for drug treatment rather than prison for many offenders. Louisiana, Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, and North Dakota have dropped laws that require criminals to serve long sentences without parole. In Mississippi, where prison rolls have increased from 10,699 to 37,754 over seven years, first-time nonviolent offenders now have the chance of parole after serving 25 percent of their sentence, rather than after a minimum 85 percent. Similarly, Louisiana has seen prison populations grow by 50 percent and expenditures by 70 percent since mandatory minimum sentences were introduced in 1994, and so has eliminated the minimum sentences for certain offences. West Virginia is giving money to counties to develop alternatives to prison, such as electronic monitoring and daily reporting. Also considering changes are New York, Alabama, Georgia, New Mexico and Idaho. The number of inmates, which fell in the second half of 2000 for the first time since 1972, can be expected to decline further.

The background is that the political climate has changed. Crime rates have fallen, and voters are more concerned about education. Over the last two decades, the number of inmates has quadrupled, and the operating costs of prisons have spiraled, and now total $30 billion a year. The economy has slowed, so states have been forced to look at cutting growing questions:

(Updated October 1, 2001)

1. Draw a production possibility curve representing the maximum amounts of prison services other state-funded services that can be provided given a state's resources.
a) Why does the curve slope downward?
b) Why is it bowed in the manner you have drawn it? Use the concept of opportunity cost to explain.
2. Over most of the last twenty years, states have toughened laws and increased the resources allocated to prisons.
a) Illustrate this on your diagram, assuming a constant amount of state resources.
b) Also, illustrate the effect of tougher laws assuming the buoyant economy provided additional resources for the state.
c) Why could states pass tougher sentencing laws so easily? What was the opportunity cost?
3. Now draw a new diagram, showing the position of a typical state in the mid-1990s.
a) Show the effect of the slowing economy on the state's resources. Why was it so difficult to maintain the tougher laws? Answer in terms of your diagram and the concept of opportunity cost.
b) Illustrate the effect of the shift in voter concern from crime to education.
Source No Author, "States get a bit less tough on crime," St. Petersburg Times, September 2, 2001.

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