Prison Vouchers

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School
vouchers have been proposed as a way to bypass the political pathologies
of school reform and improve school quality by transforming students
and parents into consumers. What if we did the same for prisons—what
if convicted criminals could choose their prison rather than being assigned
bureaucratically?

Under
a voucher system, prisons would compete for prisoners, meaning that
the prisons will adopt policies prisoners value. Prisons would
become more constitutionally flexible—faith-based prisons, now of
dubious legality, would be fully constitutional, and prisons would also
have increased freedom to offer valued benefits in exchange for the
waiver of constitutional rights. As far as prison quality goes,
the advantages of vouchers would plausibly include greater security,
higher-quality health care, and better educational opportunities—features
that prison reformers favor for their rehabilitative value.

The
counterarguments are threefold.
"Social meaning" and other philosophical arguments hold that
choice in prison conditions is either impossible or morally undesirable.
On the more economic plane, "market failure"
arguments hold that because of informational or other problems prisoner
choice would not succeed in improving overall prison quality.
"Market success" arguments, on the other hand, hold that prison
choice would improve prison quality too
much, satisfying inmate preferences that are socially undesirable or
diluting the deterrent value of prison. These counterarguments
have substantial force but do not foreclose
the possibility that prison choice results in socially desirable improvements
that could outweigh these disadvantages.

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