Chocolate and Gold Coins

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Lottery Technology for Prison Overcrowding

A few days ago, I reposted “Lottery Technology", a post about how one might use this idea of a lottery to solve the problem of old age health care. It is an odd idea but I thought it was worth a second look in another context.

Suppose you have lots of prisoners who either face the death penalty or life in prison without possibility of parole. Actually executing those on “death row” is extremely expense because of the appeal system. So the state is stuck with a huge cost either way: either they pay maybe $50,000 a year for life to incarcerate them or several million dollars to execute them.

It might be tempting to pay the prisoners to kill themselves. But how much would you have to pay to get someone to do that? The lottery technology enables this to happen. You can pay someone to kill himself. And it might be economical (although somewhat expensive).

The idea behind the lottery technology is that people will take small risks of facing death in exchange for money. Suppose you create a one minus a million sugar-pills and you place one identical looking pill with a lethal dose of cyanide in it. You mix them up and now no one could know which pill is sugar and which one is poison.

A prisoner might be willing to take such a pill in exchange for a dollar or the equivalent in merchandise. Prison life is miserable and this would allow a little better standard of living. But these small risks add up. If each prisoner spends $40,000 a year, then one in 25 prisoners will die each year.

I don’t doubt that this system would “work” in the sense that it would cause some people to kill themselves – especially the suicidal (obviously!). But I think it might lead to a really abusive prison system. The problem here is that it creates perverse incentives for the prison. The prison will want to make life hell for the prisoners unless they pay for an upgrade in conditions. Soon, prisoners would have to pay exorbitant amounts for just the basics: food, water, light, and air.

Another issue is that it reveals in some sense the waste in not trying to get more labor out of prisoners. If you think of prisoners as a pure liability of course you want them dead. If they were working and producing enough so that the liability was small or even zero, then it wouldn’t be worthwhile to try to pay them to die. I don’t think that prisons should be making a profit (like a gulag), but they shouldn’t lose too much money either. Then the incentive to kill the prisoners disappears.


Post a Comment

<< Home