Alyssa Curran
Last week, Judge William Price, the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, delivered the State of the Judiciary address. He made one thing clear: The judiciary is tasked to protect the people of the state, but they cannot carry out this commitment successfully without sufficient resources. Missouri's essential government services must be carried out even in the worst of economic times. The Missouri judiciary is doing its part to be fiscally responsible, returning millions of dollars of appropriated funds even though their own budgets are tight. They feel the same economic pressure that other government agencies are experiencing, but they are making an attempt to keep the interest of the public at the forefront.

We have all undoubtedly felt overworked and underpaid, and during a recession, the proportion of the labor force feeling this way has surely increased. As Judge Price pointed out, those who make some of the most important decisions throughout the entire criminal justice system — state prosecutors — are being spread thin. This is a worrying state of affairs if we want prosecutors to make well-considered decisions. People work better when they are happier — it's as simple as that.

One of the most pressing issues mentioned in Judge Price's address is the state's overspending on the incarceration of nonviolent criminals, something that Show-Me Institute research assistant John Payne mentioned in an earlier blog post. This is a situation resulting from too many restrictive laws that have resulted in the criminalization of nonviolent offenses, such as transactions involving drugs, alcohol, and even prostitution. Regardless of how one feels about the morality of such activities, it's hard to justify expending so many resources on their prosecution when the core functions of the judicial system — protecting life, liberty, and property from actual direct, measurable harm — is suffering from a lack of resources.

Too many people are being arrested and tried for crimes that have no complaining victim. As Reason editor Radley Balko has observed, "Because there is almost never a complaining victim in vice crimes, law enforcement officers must go to extraordinary lengths to investigate and prosecute these crimes. This leads to all sorts of other problems, including invasions of privacy, entrapment, and police corruption." The situation has also led to inconsistency in prosecution throughout Missouri. The toughest counties are prosecuting five times as many offenders as the most lenient counties.

Judge Price has has offered a rather convincing reason to change these policies, and to decrease the rate of prosecution and incarceration of nonviolent criminals — because we can't pay for it. What's even more convincing is that we cannot afford to pay for the proper treatment and rehabilitation for these offenders. Price outlines how poorly the system treats people who haven't directly harmed anybody else, by tearing them from their lives, throwing them in a "concrete box with very expensive guards, feeding them, providing them with expensive medical care, surrounding them with hardened criminals for long periods of time, and separating them from their families who need them and could otherwise help them[.]" What's worse, while in prison, some of them are being trained by full-fledged violent criminals on how to further divide themselves from mainstream society. These people are also citizens, and deserve to be given a chance to reintegrate into society.

Price provides some sobering numbers:
In 1994, shortly after I came to the Court, the number of nonviolent offenders in Missouri prisons was 7,461. Today it’s 14,204. That’s almost double. In 1994, the number of new commitments for nonviolent offenses was 4,857. Last year, it was 7,220 -- again, almost double. At a rate of $16,432 per offender, we currently are spending $233.4 million a year to incarcerate nonviolent offenders … not counting the investment in the 10 prisons it takes to hold these individuals at $100 million per prison. In 1994, appropriations to the Department of Corrections totaled $216,753,472. Today, it’s $670,079,452. The amount has tripled. And the recidivism rate for these individuals, who are returned to prison within just two years, is 41.6 percent.

Price observes that if the state government were run like a business, these wasteful practices would have been done away with years ago. "Business" may not be the most convincing metaphor to use, because one of the classic economic justifications of government action, particularly the justice system, is that public goods are not optimally provided by markets. Some economists, however, have suggested that many aspects of government action that are commonly justified in terms of their status as public goods, including some within the justice system, can't correctly be considered public goods:
The standard economics approach to delineating the optimal set of the state’s functions is unsatisfactory.2 In particular, when economists such as Joseph Stiglitz (1988: 24) indicate that “a primary role of government” is to provide the legal framework “within which all economic transactions occur,” not much is said about the desired content of the laws, and how it might affect the desirability or efficiency of their enforcement. Besides, there is typically no mention of nonstate enforcement mechanisms and their relationship to those of the state. The impression is created that all conflict resolution in economic life is in the unavoidable domain of the state. That impression is in contrast with the empirical evidence (see, e.g., Greif 1997, Gow and Swinnen 2001, and Waldmeir 2001).

This confusion is related to the use that is made of the concept of public goods as being nonrival in consumption and nonexclusive (Samuelson 1954: 387–89). If these goods are to be provided at all, taxes and the related state’s coercion are necessary. However, which goods are truly public? Is the justice system the domain of the state because the relevant services are a public good? Clearly, that cannot be said of all such services. Then, which “justice services” constitute a public good? Is the lighthouse, the favorite textbook example of a public good, a public good? Ronald Coase (1974) has shown that lighthouses in 19th century Britain were operated and financed privately. This finding, however, has not prevented the lighthouse to continue serving as the primary example of a public good in many textbooks (e.g., Stiglitz 1988: 75).

There may be fewer public goods in real life than typically assumed. As a result, the necessary (or desirable) scope of the state’s activity may be narrower, too. Some of the goods declared “public” may in fact be private goods, pushed into the state’s domain by public intervention that has eliminated or undercut the possibility of voluntary private financing of these goods. In other words, some uses of the theoretical concept of public goods may inadvertently constitute ex post justifications for the results of previous expansion of state activity.

Judge Price is not an economist, but by questioning whether the routine prosecution and incarceration of nonviolent offenders for committing consensual crimes actually provides more value than cost for the people of Missouri, this may well be the type of argument he was trying to make, using different terminology. Price is suggesting that it's time for a more thorough analysis of which interests are truly being served by prosecuting many types of nonviolent offenders, and whether such prosecution actually provides results that could be considered a public good. His address doesn't contain all the answers, but it's the starting point for a worthy debate.

In times of fiscal crisis, it sometimes becomes necessary to embark upon a new policy path, and welcome changes that we might otherwise avoid. Whether Judge Price's recommendations are inspired by a concern for justice or for more practical financial reasons, this would be a positive step for the government to take. The judiciary appears to be willing to do its part in order to withstand the jolts of the recession, but are the other branches of government also up to the task?

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Alyssa Curran