A Proposal for Defeating Moloch in the Prison Industrial Complex

post by lululu · 2015-06-02T22:03:40.800Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 77 comments

Contents

  Summary
  Current State
  My Proposal
  Roadmap
None
77 comments

Summary

I'd like to increasing the well-being of those in the justice system while simultaneously reducing crime. I'm missing something here but I'm not sure what. I'm thinking this may be a worse idea than I originally thought based on comment feedback, though I'm still not 100% sure why this is the case.

Current State

While the prison system may not constitute an existential threat, At this moment more than 2,266,000 adults are incarcerated in the US alone, and I expect that being in prison greatly decreases QALYs for those incarcerated, that further QALYs are lost to victims of crime, family members of the incarcerated, and through the continuing effects of institutionalization and PTSD from sentences served in the current system, not to mention the brainpower and man-hours lost to any productive use.


If you haven't read these Meditations on Moloch, I highly recommend it. It’s long though, so the executive summary is: Moloch is the personification of the forces of competition which perverse incentives, a "race to the bottom" type situation where all human values are discarded in an effort to survive. That this can be solved with better coordination, but it is very hard to coordinate when perverse incentives also penalize the coordinators and reward dissenters. The prison industrial complex is an example of these perverse incentives. No one thinks that the current system is ideal but incentives prevent positive change and increase absolute unhappiness.

 

 

The incentives have come far out of line with human values. What can be done to bring incentives back in alignment with the common good?

My Proposal

Using a model that predicts recidivism at sixty days, one year, three years, and five years, predict the expected recidivism rate for all inmates at all individual prison given average recidivism. Sixty days after release, if recidivism is below the predicted rate, the prison gets a small sum of money equaling 25% of the predicted cost to the state of dealing with the predicted recidivism (including lawyer fees, court fees, and jailing costs). This is repeated at one year, three years, and five years.


The statistical models would be readjusted with current data every years, so if this model causes recidivism to drop across the board, jails would be competing against ever higher standard, competing to create the most innovative and groundbreaking counseling and job skills and restorative methods so that they don’t lose their edge against other prisons competing for the same money. As it becomes harder and harder to edge out the competition’s advanced methods, and as the prison population is reduced, additional incentives could come by ending state contracts with the bottom 10% of prisons, or with any prisons who have recidivism rates larger than expected for multiple years in a row.

 

Note that this proposal makes no policy recommendations or value judgement besides changing the incentive structure. I have opinions on the sanity of certain laws and policies and the private prison system itself, but this specific proposal does not. Ideally, this will reduce some amount of partisan bickering.


Using this added success incentive, here are the modified motivations of each of the major actors.

 

 

Roadmap

If it could be shown that a model for predicting recidivism is highly predictive, we will need to create another model to predict how much the government could save if switching to a bonus system, and what reduction of crime could be expected.


Halfway houses in Pennsylvania are already receiving non-recidivism bonuses. Is a pilot project using this pricing structure feasible?

77 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ChaosMote · 2015-06-03T01:44:15.440Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Great suggestion! That said, in light of your first paragraph, I'd like to point out a couple of issues. I came up with most of these by asking the questions "What exactly are you trying to encourage? What exactly are you incentivising? What differences are there between the two, and what would make those difference significant?"

You are trying to encourage prisons to rehabilitate their inmates. If, for a given prisoner, we use p to represent their propensity towards recidivism and a to represent their actual recidivism, rehabilitation is represented by p-a. Of course, we can't actually measure these values, so we use proxies; anticipated recidivism according to your algorithm and re-conviction rate (we'll call these p' and a', respectively).

With this incentive scheme, our prisons have three incentives: increasing p'-p, increasing p-a, and increasing a-a'. The first and last can lead to some problematic incentives.

To increase p'-p, prisons need to incarcerate prisoners which are less prone to recidivism than predicted. Given that past criminality is an excellent predictor of future criminality, this leads to a perverse incentive towards incarcerating those who were unfairly convicted (wrongly convicted innocents or over-convinced lesser offenders). If said prisons can influence the judges supplying their inmates, this may lead to judges being bribed to aggressively convict edge-cases or even outright innocents, and to convict lesser offenses of crimes more correlated with recidivism. (Counterpoint: We already have this problem, so this perverse incentive might not be making things much worse than they already are.)

To increase a-a', prisons need to reduce the probability of re-conviction relative to recidivism. At the comically amoral end, this can lead to prisons teaching inmates "how not to get caught." Even if that doesn't happen, I can see prisons handing out their lawyer's business cards to released inmates. "We are invested in making you a contributing member of society. If you are ever in trouble, let us know - we might be able to help you get back on track." (Counterpoint: Some of these tactics are likely to be too expensive to be worthwhile, even ignoring morality issues.)

Also, since you are incentivising improvement but not disincentivizing regression, prisons who are below-average are encouraged to try high-volatility reforms even if they would yield negative expected improvement. For example, if a reform has a 20% chance of making things much better but a 80% chance of making things equally worse, it is still a good business decision (since the latter consequence does not carry any costs).

Replies from: Davidmanheim, ChristianKl, Houshalter, benkuhn
comment by Davidmanheim · 2015-06-03T04:31:22.836Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The incentive to try "high volatility" methods seems like an advantage; if many prisons try them, 20% of them would succeed, and we'd learn how to rehabilitate better.

Replies from: benkuhn
comment by benkuhn · 2015-06-03T22:49:53.922Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep. Concretely, if you take one year to decide that each negative reform has been negative, the 20-80 trade that the OP posts is a net positive to society if you expect the improvement to stay around for 4 years.

Replies from: Davidmanheim
comment by Davidmanheim · 2015-06-04T00:06:22.286Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Or if they will be replicated by another 20 prisons if they work...

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-03T16:59:48.917Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even if that doesn't happen, I can see prisons handing out their lawyer's business cards to released inmates. "We are invested in making you a contributing member of society. If you are ever in trouble, let us know - we might be able to help you get back on track."

I don't think that would be a problem. If more people get a good legal defense the system becomes more fair.

But even if you don't like that, you can set up the rule that the prison doesn't get the bonus if the prisoner is charged with a crime. You don't need to tie the bonus to conviction.

comment by Houshalter · 2015-06-06T01:16:21.871Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I really, really wish policy makers considered possible perverse incentive exploits in this much detail. Though I'm not convinced there is any perfect policy that has zero exploits.

comment by benkuhn · 2015-06-03T22:48:52.747Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To increase p'-p, prisons need to incarcerate prisoners which are less prone to recidivism than predicted. Given that past criminality is an excellent predictor of future criminality, this leads to a perverse incentive towards incarcerating those who were unfairly convicted (wrongly convicted innocents or over-convinced lesser offenders).

If past criminality is a predictor of future criminality, then it should be included in the state's predictive model of recidivism, which would fix the predictions. The actual perverse incentive here is for the prisons to reverse-engineer the predicted model, figure out where it's consistently wrong, and then lobby to incarcerate (relatively) more of those people. Given that (a) data science is not the core competency of prison operators; (b) prisons will make it obvious when they find vulnerabilities in the model; and (c) the model can be re-trained faster than the prison lobbying cycle, it doesn't seem like this perverse incentive is actually that bad.

Replies from: ThisSpaceAvailable, ChaosMote
comment by ThisSpaceAvailable · 2015-06-04T22:20:31.643Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(a) Prison operators are not currently incentivized to be experts in data science (b) Why? And will that fix things? There are plenty of examples of industries taking advantage of vulnerabilities, without those vulnerabilities being fixed. (c) How will it be retrained? Will there be a "We should retrain the model" lobby group, and will it act faster than the prison lobby?

Perhaps we should have a futures market in recidivism. When a prison gets a new prisoner, they buy the associated future at the market rate, and once the prisoner has been out of prison sufficiently long without committing further crimes, the prison can redeem the future. And, of course, there would be laws against prisons shorting their own prisoners.

Replies from: lululu
comment by lululu · 2015-06-08T18:44:01.043Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

re: futures market in recidivism - http://freakonomics.com/2014/01/24/reducing-recidivism-through-incentives/

If participants stop returning to jail at a rate of 10% or greater, Goldman will earn $2.1 million. If the recidivism rate rises above 10% over four years, Goldman stands to lose $2.4 million.

comment by ChaosMote · 2015-06-04T04:34:28.808Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your argument assumes that the algorithm and the prisons have access to the same data. This need not be the case - in particular, if a prison bribes a judge to over-convict, the algorithm will be (incorrectly) relying on said conviction as data, skewing the predicted recidivism measure.

That said, the perverse incentive you mentioned is absolutely in play as well.

Replies from: benkuhn
comment by benkuhn · 2015-06-04T07:07:57.292Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I glossed over the possibility of prisons bribing judges to screw up the data set. That's because the extremely small influence of marginal data points and the cost of bribing judges would make such a strategy incredibly expensive.

comment by polymathwannabe · 2015-06-02T22:23:27.224Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Obvious, but worth mentioning: the recidivism index should not count the prisoners who didn't commit any more crimes because they died after they were released; otherwise it would appear lower than its actual value (and would create a hideous incentive).

I can see this system creating pressure to relax parole standards; if a minor deviance from the rules is not counted as recidivism, both the prison and the prisoner benefit.

Replies from: lululu
comment by lululu · 2015-06-02T23:58:08.604Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A very good point! If someone dies, I guess their expected recidivism rate should drop to zero so as not to affect the rate that the prison is targeting.

And I wonder what the incentives are for parole boards and officers? Who controls regulations, bonuses, and promotions for this group? This is definitely something worth researching.

Replies from: TsviBT
comment by TsviBT · 2015-06-03T00:17:19.574Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This still incentivizes prisons to help along the death of prisoners that they predict are more likely then the prison-wide average to repeat-offend, in the same way average utilitarianism recommends killing everyone but the happiest person (so to speak).

Replies from: lululu, VoiceOfRa
comment by lululu · 2015-06-03T00:51:15.188Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmmm, yes. Yikes. Additional thought needed.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-03T05:11:01.969Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This still incentivizes prisons to help along the death of prisoners that they predict are more likely then the prison-wide average to repeat-offend

Wow, that sounds like a feature.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-03T09:28:32.345Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The elephant in the room is that the US has radically higher incarnation rates than every other country. If you want to reform the systems it's worth paying attention to how the US system differs and what it does to get higher incarnation rates.

Jails compete for money: the more prisoners they house, the more they are paid and the longer they can continue to exist.

That sounds plausible at first glance but it might be more complicated. Have you looked in more detail about how prisons are currently payed?

Prisons love getting more money for doing the same amount of work so campaign contributions would stay stable or go up for politicians who support reduced recidivism bonuses.

Prisons itself don't want anything. There managers have interests. There are also workers. The union of those workers has political interests.

It's not that easy to get data about this but as far as I understand prison workers unions are a significant political player in the US.

Replies from: Zubon
comment by Zubon · 2015-06-04T00:50:57.624Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not that easy to get data about this but as far as I understand prison workers unions are a significant political player in the US.

An incomplete accounting suggests that prison guard unions outspend private prisons, which could reverse "This incentive is strong for public prisons and doubly strong for private prisons." So whatever negative effects one expected from private prison political advocacy, at least double that. (The important part isn't "sides" on that but rather the magnitude of political lobbying.)

(I feel I should note that public unions will spend effort lobbying to increase workers' share of the prison costs, not just to increase the number of prisoners or guard jobs. I could not tell you the breakdown between advocacy for "tough on crime" and for more pension protection.)

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-04T10:53:02.546Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I feel I should note that public unions will spend effort lobbying to increase workers' share of the prison costs

Workers that are union members. I don't know whether a CBT therapist would be included. If a prison suddenly starts hiring all sorts of specialists that aren't prison guards and pays it's money to them, the prison guard union might not like that.

To make the whole proposal more target, we might switch from paying the full bonus to the prison and pay half of it to the prison and the other half to the employees directly.

comment by shminux · 2015-06-03T00:00:02.354Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The first thing you suggest, creating a quality model of recidivism, would be eminently worthwhile. So much so, it has probably been done already a few times. Google "model of recidivism" and see how much stuff is out there. Read it.

Replies from: VoiceOfRa
comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-03T05:07:52.021Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, there probably exist tons of models, the question is are they any good.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2015-06-03T05:59:16.990Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What are the odds that what OP proposes will be any better?

Replies from: VoiceOfRa
comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-03T06:03:01.030Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Rather low.

comment by T3t · 2015-06-02T23:41:20.599Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Missing actor/incentive structure:

Our current justice system is largely based on the idea of retribution, not rehabilitation. This is a trade-off where the State delivers vengeance for victims/families of victims to prevent vigilante justice. It may not make much sense in terms of impact today, but as a cultural norm it still exists and this idea does nothing to address that.

Other thoughts:

Does not really address "recidivism" of victimless crimes, including most drug crimes, except in the most general sense. Convincing people that smoking weed is morally wrong is much harder than convincing them that murder is morally wrong.

Replies from: lululu
comment by lululu · 2015-06-03T00:27:55.007Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure I'm convinced that it would interact with the idea of retribution. I'm personally not behind the idea of retribution as the final goal of our justice system, but of this proposal would be adding rehabilitation as an explicit end goal without making any statement for or against retribution as a possible concurrent end goal. This isn't a proposal to reduce or alter sentences in any way, in other words, in the mind of people who demand retributive justice, justice will continue to be served.

In an ideal world, I would rather that the US moved away from retribution, but changing cultural norms that are as established as that one is much more difficult than changing payment structures, I imagine. And very few people, including those who prefer retributive justice, would argue that recidivism rates should be increased or stay the same if decrease is possible.

I'm also not really on board with imprisoning people who commit victimless crimes. But that is well outside the scope for this. Again, this proposal specifically makes no value judgments on other policies (in hopes that it could actually be passed without partisan bickering). So pot is an issue for another day. And if recidivism of weed smokers isn't reduced at the rate of victim crimes or even at all that will be reflected in the statistics so that someone was a weed smoker, they would add more to the prison's expected recidivism rate. There are some very effective CBT based strategies, though (namely CRA and CRAFT) which can be very effective in reducing addiction, so I don't think drug crimes would be as difficult as you think to reduce. And I still think it would still be better to reduce some recidivism than reduce no recidivism, especially if the recidivism you're reducing is crimes with victims.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-03T04:31:11.070Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The core idea of incentivizing prisons to reduce recidivism seems very reasonable. If it's not currently being done, it definitely seems worth trying. At least for the experimental data of whether or not it's a good idea (although politicians wouldn't be able to admit to that reasoning).

Do you know if this is currently being done in any form? Are there other industries/contexts where similar things are being done? Successes? Failures?


This is really complex issue. What "should" be done depends on a lot of factors. You don't seem to have addressed/emphasized this. I think you should have.

However, I think people often use that sort of argument as a cop out, and I certainly won't do that. Relevant questions include "Do we expect that your proposal is better than what's currently being done (we don't need to be 100% sure for it to be worth trying)?". And "Do we expect that your proposal is better than other sensible proposals?" And "How 'high of a ceiling' does this idea have? How much upside? What's the best case scenario?".

I also want to point out that there are two separate questions at play here:

1) What policy would be best? If you had the power to snap your fingers and implement a policy, what would it be?

2) How practical is the proposal? Will it ever get adopted? What would have to happen in order for it to be adopted?

comment by knb · 2015-06-03T02:26:13.755Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To cut back on prison rape, some people have proposed segregating prisons by weight class. Using lean body mass would seem like a better idea. (To prevent short fat guys from being abused.) It would be easy to implement as well.

Letting prisoners choose which prison they will be housed in, and then paying prisons based on head count seems like an interesting idea to me. (The prisons could be privatized, or a bonus could be paid to wardens/staff/guards for each increase in enrollment. If a prison has a reputation for being dangerous or violent, just opt into a different prison (obviously within limits, like security level.) If one prison's population gets too low, a more successful prison could then take on management of it. Someone might be concerned that this would lead to prisons becoming too nice to work effectively as punishment. That could be corrected via regulations or just lowering the per-prisoner payment.

At minimum, each prisoner should be able to choose a private cell.

Replies from: Jiro
comment by Jiro · 2015-06-03T16:02:09.814Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

-- Prisoners are generally poor, so the biggest thing that would affect the prisoner's choice would probably be physical distance to family. This factor may be big enough that the system wouldn't optimize anything else.

-- Prisoners probably aren't going to get very accurate information about which prison is preferable.

-- Even ignoring this, it fails to consider that prisoners may prefer certain prisons for reasons that are harmful to the rest of us; for instance, because the prison has a lot of members of his own gang in it

Replies from: knb
comment by knb · 2015-06-03T20:51:58.872Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Prisoners are generally poor, so the biggest thing that would affect the prisoner's choice would probably be physical distance to family. This factor may be big enough that the system wouldn't optimize anything else.

Given that the stakes involve being murdered, raped, assaulted by guards, etc. I think many prisoners would accept fewer family visits in exchange for more safety.

Prisoners probably aren't going to get very accurate information about which prison is preferable.

This is definitely wrong, prisons already have strong reputations among criminals, defense attorneys already know a great deal about prison environments from having so many encounters with repeat criminals with inside experience. Given prison choice, defense attorneys would certainly make it their business to know prison reputations to advise their clients.

Even ignoring this, it fails to consider that prisoners may prefer certain prisons for reasons that are harmful to the rest of us; for instance, because the prison has a lot of members of his own gang in it

If true, this would not be different from the current status quo. In California prisons are already basically segregated by gang, and each gang is given yard time separately. This is done to prevent violence.

Prison gangs formed from a kind of arms race of mutual self-defense. Take away the need for self-defense in prison, and people will stop joining them. More to the point, there is really no reason to allow criminals to associate with each other in prison at all. Let them talk to non-prisoners via Skype calls for socialization and send them out on supervised work details if their behavior is good.

Replies from: Nornagest, torekp, None, Epictetus
comment by Nornagest · 2015-06-03T21:00:56.185Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Prison gangs formed from a kind of arms race of mutual self-defense.

Lots of gangs form that way -- it's one of the two main pathways to organized crime, the other one being economies of scale in selling illegal goods and services. The Bloods, for example, started out as a sort of anti-Crips self-defense force, and many yakuza organizations are generally thought to have their roots in mutual-protection societies among small commercial enterprises.

comment by torekp · 2015-06-07T11:55:14.486Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think many prisoners would accept fewer family visits in exchange for more safety.

But even if they didn't, the family visits are a valuable result of the proposed incentive program.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-05T23:29:17.502Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Take away the need for self-defense in prison, and people will stop joining them.

Yes, because human nature is not wired for tribalism...

Sarcasm aside, in a bleak and boring environment gangs provide readily available emotional nutritition. Belonging, symbols, inititation, the usual package. Freemasonry for the less intelligent, kind of.

comment by Epictetus · 2015-06-07T12:32:26.255Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Prison gangs formed from a kind of arms race of mutual self-defense. Take away the need for self-defense in prison, and people will stop joining them.

People will still join for social reasons. They do it outside of prison, so there isn't much reason to discontinue the practice inside of prison.

More to the point, there is really no reason to allow criminals to associate with each other in prison at all. Let them talk to non-prisoners via Skype calls for socialization and send them out on supervised work details if their behavior is good.

Solitary confinement has long been associated with negative psychological outcomes. Some would call it torture.

I'm not convinced that limiting social contact to the occasional Skype call is going to solve these problems. Not all prisoners have outside contacts with ready access to Skype. And what of prisoners who are out of touch with non-criminal acquaintances?

Replies from: knb
comment by knb · 2015-06-07T22:24:31.678Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

People will still join for social reasons. They do it outside of prison, so there isn't much reason to discontinue the practice inside of prison.

Actually self-defense is one of the main reasons people join street gangs too; they live in violent neighborhoods, go to dangerous schools, etc. You obviously don't need a criminal enterprise to get social interaction. Even if some people join gangs just because they like being in a gang, it is a well-established fact that most of the people who join prison gangs do so because they feel it is necessary to protect themselves.

Solitary confinement has long been associated with negative psychological outcomes. Some would call it torture.

And I suppose being raped, terrorized, beaten, etc. are not forms of torture? Of course, the modern practice of solitary confinement is designed as a punishment, including not being given visitation, yard time, television, etc. That is nothing like what I propose, which would involve using visitation and work-details so prisoners get to socialize with non-criminals.

comment by Squark · 2015-06-03T17:55:24.870Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nice post! A related idea: instead of incentivizing only reduced recidivism, we can incentivize things like former prisoners finding decent jobs.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-03T02:17:31.677Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What are the incentives for the powers-that-be to adopt your scheme?

Where will the "bonus" money come from? If from reduced expenses on dealing with crime, this is a direct threat to the jobs of cops, judges, prison guards, etc. etc. Crime is highly useful and profitable to many people. They will not want to reduce crime (or "crime") rates.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-04T13:38:54.409Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Amazing work OP

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-06-04T10:40:49.659Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's an incentive you didn't mention, towards smallest prison populations, which is lowering costs and taxes.

You seem to take it for granted that the prison system will be largely private, but in many countries they are directly run by the state, which removes the profit and campaign donation incentives at a stroke.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-06-04T13:30:40.097Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Except by prison workers' unions.

comment by bortels · 2015-06-03T06:42:31.661Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps instead of the prison, the ex-prisoner should be given the financial incentive to avoid recidivism. Reward good behavior, rather than punish bad.

We could do this by providing training, and given them reasonable jobs. HA HA! I make myself laugh. Sigh.

It seems to me the issue is less one of recidivism, and more one of the prison-for-profit machine. Rather than address it by trying to make them profit either way (they get paid if the prisoner returns already - this is proposing they get paid if they stay out) - it seems simpler to remove profit as a motive (ie. if the state is gonna lock you up - the state has to deal with it, nobody should be doing it as a business). Not that the state is likely to have a better record here.

My take is that we would be better off spending that money on education and health care for the poor, as an effort to avoid having crime be seen as an easy way out of poverty. Ooh, my inner hippie is showing. Time to go hug a tree.

Replies from: ChristianKl, lululu
comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-03T13:50:32.324Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps instead of the prison, the ex-prisoner should be given the financial incentive to avoid recidivism.

Given people who commit crimes money that you don't give the rest of the population seems like a bad idea for all sorts of reasons.

Lack of getting caught for a crime also isn't proof of good behavior.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2015-06-03T16:11:31.326Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If giving them money goes along with putting them in prison for a substantial term, then I'm not sure there are severe bad incentives here. In any case, what bortels mostly has in mind is indirect financial incentives: trying to ensure that ex-convicts are able to get decent jobs. (Which should go along with trying to ensure that other people are able to get decent jobs, too.)

Replies from: bortels
comment by bortels · 2015-06-04T01:37:28.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Exactly. Having a guaranteed low-but-livable-income job as a reward for serving time and not going back is hardly a career path people will aim for - but might be attractive to someone who is out but sees little alternatives but to go back to a life of crime.

I actually think training and new-deal type employment guarantees for those in poverty is a good idea aside from the whole prison thing - in that attempts to raise people from poverty would likely reduce crime to begin with.

The real issue here - running a prison being a profit-making business - has already been pointed out.

comment by lululu · 2015-06-08T19:20:41.348Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fully agreed that this incentive would also be well spent on programs directly for the prisoner. Unfortunately, there is no way that you could convince law makers to consider this. Imagine the headlines: "My Rapist Is Payed More than Me," "Go Directly to Jail, Collect $200", "Pennsylvania Begins New Steal to Earn Program," "Don't Qualify for Student Loans? Steal a Car!"

People are more comfortable if the money goes to some intermediary. I would expect prisons are the best group to insensitivize because they have the captive audience. If job training works, prisons can earn money by providing job training. If they need reasonable jobs, it would be in the prison's interest to make ties with recruiters or hire a full time job seeker on the prisoner's behalf.

For the record, also agreed that education and health care are great preventative expenditures but that is a different system for reforming and one with a lot of partisan lines in the sand. I think it would be disproportionately difficult to use incentives to reform those areas because facts don't matter when partisanism starts happening.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-02T22:48:20.017Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I predict that some amount of book-cooking will happen, but that the gains possible with book cooking are small compared to gains from actual improvements in their prison program.

Evidence? Given the history of attempts at rehabilitation programs, this is a rather dubious statement.

Police and judges retain the same incentives as before, for bonuses, prestige, and promotions. This is good for the system, because if their incentives were not running counter to the prisons and jails, then there would be a lot of pressure to cook the books by looking the other way on criminals til after the 60 day/1 year/5 year mark.

Police are also incentivised to not appear "racist", look what happened to Darren Wilson after he shot a black thug who was going for his gun. Thus it is in their interest to avoid patrolling high-crime ghettoes, e.g., what happened in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.

Replies from: lululu
comment by lululu · 2015-06-02T23:39:23.338Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Evidence? Given the history of attempts at rehabilitation programs, this is a rather dubious statement.

Mostly just because of the coordination problems necessary to cook the books in a statistically meaningful way. Individual teachers cheat standardized tests all the time by staying late and correcting student's answers, but cooking the books to reduce the appearance of recidivism would involve a top-to-bottom conspiracy involving police precincts, parole boards and officers, and judges. And even then, the top-to-bottom conspiracy would benefit one prisons at the expense of other prisons so other prisons have incentive to call out the offenders among them. Rather than facing a coordination problem of that magnitude, with the concomitant risks of discovery and punishment which grow with every person in on the conspiracy, it seems a lot simpler and more effective to hire some good psychologists and job skill trainers. Its not so much that I have confidence in the prison system acting morally, its more that I have less confidence in prison system being able to manage a complicated scheme. Certainly there will be successful smaller-scale cheating and skimming off the top, as often is when state money is on the line, but not at the magnitude I would expect to see actual improvements in treatment.

Police are also incentivised to not appear "racist", look what happened to Darren Wilson after he shot a black thug who was going for his gun. Thus it is in their interest to avoid patrolling high-crime ghettoes, e.g., what happened in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.

Not sure what you're getting at here. Certainly there are a lot of perverse incentives in the whole system, I wouldn't disagree with that. And the perverse incentives come from many directions with a lot of institutional force. I'm just not sure how this relates to my specific proposal. What are you expecting will happen on the police side if this change occurred?

Edit: Sorry, I just realized I might have misunderstood you. In your first comment, were you asking for evidence that small changes could lead to large gains? I was mostly basing that on the difference between US prison recidivism vs. Scandinavian countries. The US recidivism rate is 76%, Norway's is 20%. Their prisons are far more expensive than ours to run, but I doubt that every single percentage point of that 54% difference is from high-cost measures like individual rooms. Heck, reducing post prison PTSD from reducing prison rapes would probably be enough to drop at least a couple percentage points, and also just be a generally good thing. But the thing is, this plan isn't designed to give specific policy recommendations. The bonus structure should favor innovation rather than one specific program. Basically, prisons should try all sorts of plans to see what works to reduce recidivism.

Replies from: VoiceOfRa
comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-03T05:06:49.375Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem is that the only way your proposal could get implemented is if a politician campaigns on being more humane without increasing crime, which means he'll have an incentive to show the system works by execrating the rehabilitation statistics.

What are you expecting will happen on the police side if this change occurred?

Not much, simply they avoid patrolling ghettos (as tends to happen unless there is a "tough on crime" mayor in office) and thus the correctional institutions can declare people "reformed" who aren't.

I was mostly basing that on the difference between US prison recidivism vs. Scandinavian countries.

Failure to control for population. I don't have the statistics in front of me, but the recidivism rate among people in the US with Scandinavian ancestry is probably similar to the Scandinavian one.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-02T22:32:59.747Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Politicians compete for electability. Convicts can’t vote, prisons make campaign contributions and jobs, and appearing “tough on crime” appeals to a large portion of the voter base.

You seem to have forgotten why appearing "tough on crime" appeals to current voters.

Breif history lesson: During the 1960's and early 1970's politicans competed for electability by appearing compasionate to criminals, who were after all only "victims of society". The result was the massive crime wave of the 1970's. As a result the generation which grew up during that time learned that politicans promissing being compasion for criminals leads to an increased chance of them being mugged. Now that generation is the one in charge and they like politicans who are "tough on crime".

Replies from: jimrandomh, lululu
comment by jimrandomh · 2015-06-02T23:42:41.877Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Our opinion-makers have gone too far in promoting the doctrine that when a law is broken, society, not the criminal is to blame." -- Richard Nixon, 1967 (about a year before he became President)

The data does not support the claim that "tough on crime" strategy was effective.

Replies from: shminux, knb
comment by shminux · 2015-06-02T23:50:36.600Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The data does not support the claim that "tough on crime" strategy was effective.

But the "tough on lead" strategy likely was.

Replies from: anon85
comment by anon85 · 2015-06-03T18:32:52.021Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meh, probably not:

http://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/pinker_comments_on_lead_removal_and_declining_crime.pdf

There are reasons to be skeptical of any claim based on correlations between such widely separated variables as lead exposure (the cause) and crime (the effect). Consuming lead does not instantly turn someone into a criminal in the way that consuming vitamin C cures scurvy. It affects the child’s developing brain, which makes the child duller and more impulsive, which, in some children, and under the right circumstances, leads them to grow up to make short-sighted and risky choices, which, in some children and under the right circumstances, leads them to commit crimes, which, if enough young people act in the same way and at the same time, affects the crime rate. The lead hypothesis correlates the first and last link in this chain, but it would be more convincing if there were evidence about the intervening links. Such correlations should be far stronger than the one they report: presumably most kids with lead are more impulsive, whereas only a minority of impulsive young adults commit crimes. If they are right we should see very strong changes in IQ, school achievement, impulsiveness, childhood aggressiveness, lack of conscientiousness (one of the “Big Five” personality traits) that mirror the trends in lead exposure, with a suitable time delay. Those trends should be much stronger than the time-lagged correlation of lead with crime itself, which is only indirectly related to impulsiveness, an effect that is necessarily diluted by other causes such as policing and incarceration. I am skeptical that such trends exist, though I may not be aware of such studies.

...

Also, the parallelism in curves for lead and time-shifted crime seem too good to be true, since the lead hypothesis assumes that the effects of lead exposure are greatest in childhood. But 23 years after the first lower-lead cohort, only a small fraction of the crime-prone cohort should be lead-free; there are still all those lead-laden young adults who have many years of crime ahead of them. Only gradually should the crime-prone demographic sector be increasingly populated by lead-free kids. The time-shifted curve for crime should be an attenuated, smeared version of the curve for lead, not a perfect copy of it. Also, the effects of age on crime are not sharply peaked, with a spike around the 23rd birthday, and a sharp falloff—it’s a very gentle bulge spread out over the 15-30 age range. So you would not expect such a perfect time-shifted overlap as you might, for example, for first-grade reading performance, where the measurement is so restricted in time.

Finally, the most general reason for skepticism about a causal hypothesis based on epidemiological correlations between a widely separated cause and effect is that across times and places, many things tend to go together. Neighborhoods next to smoggy freeways also tend to be poorer, more poorly policed, more poorly schooled, less stable, more dependent on contraband economies, and so on. It’s all too easy to find spurious correlations in this tangle – which is why so many epidemiological studies of the cause and prevention of disease (this gives you cancer; that prevents it) fail to replicate.

Replies from: Unnamed, OrphanWilde
comment by Unnamed · 2015-06-03T23:25:07.082Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like Pinker is unfamiliar with most of the research on the topic. He refers to this graph, but not any of the research on the various other predictions that you could derive from the hypothesis that lead caused much of the hump in crime over the past 60 years.

The things that he says about priors, and about the sorts of research that he'd like to see, sound plausible, but I wouldn't put much stock in what he says about the state of the research.

Replies from: anon85
comment by anon85 · 2015-06-03T23:30:32.998Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He refers to this graph, but not any of the research on the various other predictions that you could derive from the hypothesis that lead caused much of the hump in crime over the past 60 years.

Can you name some of these predictions? Can you link to some of the research? What exactly are you referring to?

Replies from: Unnamed
comment by Unnamed · 2015-06-03T23:53:45.019Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

3 predictions that I came up with, when I heard about the hypothesis:

  1. The lead hypothesis predicts a cohort effect: the crime rate for 35-year-olds should drop 10 years after the crime rate drops for 25-year-olds. Many competing hypotheses (like new policing tactics) predict a cross-sectional effect: the crime rate for 35-year-olds drops at the same time that the crime rate drops for 25-year-olds. (Although there may be feedback effects which cause some smudging of this sharp distinction, e.g. more crime among a subgroup means that police are spread thinner which makes crime more attractive for everyone.)
  2. The lead hypothesis makes pretty specific predictions about differences in the timing of the crime drop across different regions. If one jurisdiction removes lead 8 years after another jurisdiction, then their crime rate should drop 8 years later.
  3. The lead hypothesis predicts differences in the size of the crime increase & drop across different regions. If one region had more environmental lead than another, then it should have both a larger increase in crime during the "increasing crime rates" time period and a larger drop in crime during the "declining crime rates" time period.

I looked at one of Nevin's papers shortly after the Drum piece originally came out and it had some evidence for all 3 predictions, though not with as much rigor/precision/detail as I would've liked. For example, on prediction #3 it compared larger cities (which had more driving per unit area, and thus more environmental lead due to gasoline) to smaller cities and showed that their crime rates matched this pattern.

There is also research on other steps in the long chain (e.g., measuring blood levels of lead), and on other outcomes attributed to lead (e.g., teen pregnancy rates), some of which is mentioned in Drum's original piece. I haven't looked into that research beyond what I've seen in the popular press articles.

Replies from: anon85
comment by anon85 · 2015-06-04T01:15:43.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you think you could link to that paper?

A Larger vs. smaller cities comparison sounds like it has ample room for confounding factors, no?

The other outcomes attributed to lead sound like they correlate with crime rates, so this isn't independent evidence for the lead hypothesis.

Replies from: Unnamed
comment by Unnamed · 2015-06-04T04:22:22.965Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the paper that I looked at was The Answer is Lead Poisoning. Mainly just looking at the graphs & tables.

The city size pattern is not a unique prediction of the lead hypothesis (there are various other differences between large & small cities which could account for it, though nothing that strikes me as overwhelmingly obvious), but it is a relatively unambiguous prediction (especially if there's high quality data on city size vs. environmental lead levels - I'm not sure how good those data are). If large vs. small cities turned out not to have this difference in crime trends then that would be pretty strong evidence against the lead hypothesis, so the fact that the comparison did come out this way must be at least some evidence in favor of the lead hypothesis.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-06-03T19:27:39.471Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, the parallelism in curves for lead and time-shifted crime seem too good to be true, since the lead hypothesis assumes that the effects of lead exposure are greatest in childhood. But 23 years after the first lower-lead cohort, only a small fraction of the crime-prone cohort should be lead-free; there are still all those lead-laden young adults who have many years of crime ahead of them. Only gradually should the crime-prone demographic sector be increasingly populated by lead-free kids. The time-shifted curve for crime should be an attenuated, smeared version of the curve for lead, not a perfect copy of it. Also, the effects of age on crime are not sharply peaked, with a spike around the 23rd birthday, and a sharp falloff—it’s a very gentle bulge spread out over the 15-30 age range. So you would not expect such a perfect time-shifted overlap as you might, for example, for first-grade reading performance, where the measurement is so restricted in time.

Am I misreading this, or is this suggesting that the fact that the time-shifted correlation is unusually strong should be taken as evidence -against- the correlation?

Replies from: anon85
comment by anon85 · 2015-06-03T22:59:33.667Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Suppose you're Bayesian, and you're calculating

P(lead causes crime | data) = P(data | lead causes crime) * P(lead causes crime) / P(data).

What Pinker is saying is that P(data | lead causes crime) is not as high as you'd think, because if lead really does cause crime, we should not expect the crime curve to be a time-shifted version of the lead curve. It's probably still true that P(data | lead causes crime) > P(data), so that you should update in the direction of lead causes crime, but this update should probably be smaller than you thought before reading that paragraph.

Replies from: Unnamed
comment by Unnamed · 2015-06-04T04:31:22.830Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Has anyone figured out what crime curve you would expect based on the lead curve (presumably a version that is shifted & smeared out based on the age distribution of criminals), and checked how well it fits the actual crime data? It's not obvious to me, from looking at the pictures that I've seen with the shifted curves, that adding the smearing would make the fit worse. For instance, the graph I linked earlier shows that the recent drop in crime is more gradual than the drop in lead that happened 20-30 years ago, which seems to fit the more rigorous "time-shifted and smeared out" prediction better than it fits the simplistic time-shifted curve approach that Nevin used.

comment by knb · 2015-06-03T21:41:50.439Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The data does not support the claim that "tough on crime" strategy was effective.

Misleading. You cited a single quote from 1967 from a politician who held no elected office to try to imply that is when tough-on-crime legislation was adopted. To actually make the case, you would have to actually cite when actual tough-on-crime legislation was passed and implemented. Of course, harsher penalties were not implemented all at once, it happened over the course of decades, lasting into the 1980s and 1990s.

Replies from: jimrandomh
comment by jimrandomh · 2015-06-04T00:27:37.263Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

True; I quoted Nixon instead of pointing at legislation because checking the positions of presidents was easier than finding relevant legislation.

comment by lululu · 2015-06-02T23:55:52.399Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reduced recidivism bonuses don't say how to achieve reduced recidivism. This policy change would arguably be neither tougher nor softer on crime because it doesn't change the length of the sentences or make any value judgement on which treatment methods should be used.

In other words, if being soft on crime isn't working, then prisons don't get a bonus for being soft on crime. Everything we know about human psychology, though, says traumatic experiences make someone more likely to commit crime or suffer mental problems that contribute to increased crime risk, so I don't expect that harsher prisons are the answer. But who am I to know, let the data show what works.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-03T02:22:37.729Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reduced recidivism bonuses don't say how to achieve reduced recidivism. This policy change would arguably be neither tougher nor softer on crime

The incentive would be to charge random "normal" people with some crime because they're likely to not re-offend. Professional criminals, on the other hand, would be a drag and better avoided.

Replies from: lululu, ChristianKl
comment by lululu · 2015-06-08T19:04:13.081Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

People's past experience with the justice system would no doubt be part of the model, as well as factors possibly including: Career area, Dependents/spouse, Time in current job, Past (unconvicted) run ins with cops, Known drug addictions, Track record of arresting cop and sentencing judge, ect.

With a good model, it would be hard to charge "normal" people in a way that actually gamed the statistics, because their probability to re-offend is very low to begin with. When they don't re-offend it would be expected behavior and not represent in drop in observed recidivism vs expected recidivism. So no bonus.

I would expect the lowest hanging fruit to be in drug addicts and thieves, there is a very large body of knowledge about rehabilitating those two groups.These would be the two groups where I expect to see the largest difference between expected recidivism in the current system vs. a treatment group with psych professionals and job training provided.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-03T09:31:46.511Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Basically the way the SEC works ;)

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-03T14:31:02.812Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Y'know what occurred to me? There was a movie about an attempt to reduce recidivism and make sure people released from jail become law-abiding members of society.

It was called Clockwork Orange.

Replies from: fubarobfusco, SilentCal, knb
comment by fubarobfusco · 2015-06-03T16:33:38.341Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"I try to avoid the logical fallacy of generalization from fictional evidence."

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-03T16:44:56.138Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, and..?

Did I assert something and said "This surely must be true, for that is how things happened in the Korova Milk Bar"?

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2015-06-03T16:51:04.898Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What's wrong with using movies or novels as starting points for the discussion? No one's claiming that it's true, after all. Where is the lie, where is the rationalist sin? Science fiction represents the author's attempt to visualize the future; why not take advantage of the thinking that's already been done on our behalf, instead of starting over?

Not every misstep in the precise dance of rationality consists of outright belief in a falsehood; there are subtler ways to go wrong.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-03T17:01:45.226Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That starting point of the discussion we are having is fiction: it is a proposal for a reform of the penitentiary system, the reform that does not exist and is unlikely to come to pass, at least in the near future.

And in this particular case the movie is but a finger pointing to something. Since it is non-obvious to at least some, I'll spell it out: under the proposed reform jails have strong incentives to not let the released inmates re-offend. At the same time jails have a great deal of control over what happens to inmates in their custody. One easy way to prevent future criminal activity is to cripple people in some way.

Hey, wasn't there a movie about a troublesome guy who got a lobotomy? :-P

comment by SilentCal · 2015-06-03T20:48:57.981Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This comment matches a pretty bad pattern. No doubt you've seen it too; e.g., "There were some people who tried to create an orderly society; they were called Nazis".

That said, it's definitely worth considering that prisons might find ways of reducing recidivism that we wouldn't like.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-03T21:00:59.984Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, it does, but why is the pattern bad? It's a hint at the observation that the potential solution space includes not only rainbows and unicorns, but also some pretty ugly monsters.

In this particular case there is even no implication that the OP himself might belong to this class of ugly monsters, only that his proposed solution creates incentives to look around the solution space mentioned above...

Replies from: SilentCal
comment by SilentCal · 2015-06-04T17:41:00.093Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In my mind, the prototypical instance of the pattern is essentially an attempt at the fallacious implication, "You want to create an orderly society; the Nazis wanted to create an orderly society; you're a Nazi".

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-04T18:21:29.884Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How would you concisely express the idea of "wanting to create orderly societies can lead to bad consequences, we have historical examples, such as the Nazis" without that implication?

Replies from: SilentCal
comment by SilentCal · 2015-06-04T21:29:53.628Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You might just have to go with the long form. People are accustomed to pretty bad debating behavior. It'd be great if they could be charitable enough to consider alternate possibilities in a venue like LW, but empirically they often do not.

To be fully clear, I didn't intend an attack on you. I've upvoted your top post; it raises an important concern, and the way it's expressed makes perfect sense if you don't confuse it with similarly-phrased fallacious implications.

But even I downvoted it before I thought about it for five seconds, and I felt I had some insight to share into why that was such a common response.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-05T00:41:20.506Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's OK. I feel that a slight troll aroma tends to improve the complexity of the flavour :-D

comment by knb · 2015-06-03T21:18:56.498Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the Ludovico technique actually worked, it would certainly seem to be a less cruel option than prison. I would probably rather be Ludovico'd than spend, say, 10 years in prison.