'Human capital' or 'human waste'? South Dakota's choice in criminal justice
Thursday, 05 November 2009 15:22
Written by Thomas L. Dobbs, Professor Emeritus of Economics, South Dakota State University
Two starkly different conferences were held just 60 miles apart in eastern South Dakota during October. One was based on a native South Dakotan's Nobel Prize winning theories of 'human capital'. The other made clear the 'human waste' imbedded in South Dakota's extremely harsh approach to criminal justice. Our criminal justice system should be drawing more heavily on human capital ideas. We would have a society that is both more just and more economically productive.
South Dakota State University (SDSU) alumnus Theodore W. Schultz received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1979 for his path breaking work on the concept of 'human capital'. I attended the Thirtieth Anniversary Commemorative Symposium at SDSU in Brookings on October 6 and 7, held in recognition of Schultz's work and it's contributions to the economics of investing in people. Ten days later, I attended a very different conference about societies' ideas concerning treatment of people. This was the Annual Conference of the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, held this year on October 16 and 17 in Sioux Falls. The theme of this year's conference was 'Healing Justice: Moving Past Retribution'. Having attended annual conferences of this organization off and on since the Center's founding nearly 30 years ago, I must say that this was one of the best. . (Disclosure: I currently serve on the Peace and Justice Center's Board of Directors.) But the statistics and stories related by conference presenters about how too many people are treated in South Dakota's criminal justice or corrections system left me extremely depressed. I came away with the feeling that much about this system presently treats people as 'human waste'. What if, instead, our corrections system treated people as potential 'human capital'?
The legacy of T.W. Schultz and the concept of 'human capital'
T.W. Schultz, born in 1902, was raised on a farm near Badger, in Kingsbury County. After completing the eighth grade in a country school, he stayed home to help on the family farm for several years. At age 19, he returned to school by attending the Aggie School high school program at SDSU. He then proceeded to study for his B.S. in agricultural economics at SDSU, and then studied for and received his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. From Wisconsin, Schultz went on to a distinguished economics career, first at Iowa State University and then at the University of Chicago. The academic freedom conflict that caused Schultz to depart Iowa State for Chicago is legendary, but that is an entire story in itself. Schultz passed away in 1998.
It was in his years at Chicago that Schultz fleshed out and published his ideas about 'human capital'. In attempting to explain why some economies develop faster than others, he reached the conclusion that at least one of the important explanatory factors is the extent to which countries invest in the education and health of their people. In effect, public and private investments in human capital can pay economic dividends just like investments in such physical capital as factories, roads, dams, and power plants.
Now, a half-century after Schultz formalized these ideas in the economics literature, human capital concepts are part of mainstream economic thinking. Human capital theory forms the foundation for a great deal of public policy about investments in education and training. It also has influenced public policies concerning investments in human health, but probably not as much as it could and should. However, when it comes to the criminal justice system in South Dakota, human capital concepts seem to be losing their influence.
'Human waste' in the South Dakota corrections system
Criminal justice systems across much of the U.S., including South Dakota, seem to have been based more on retribution than on rehabilitation in recent decades. Sentences have become harsher, and prison populations have exploded. According to The Economist ("Crime and Politics: The Velvet Glove", October 24, 2009), the U.S. prison population has quadrupled since 1980, to 2.3 million people. A half million of the prisoners are non-violent drug offenders. According to a June 11, 2009 Huffington Post article ("Why We Must Reform Our Criminal Justice System") by U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Virginia), the U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prison population! Webb's article indicates that 60 percent of offenders in the U.S. are arrested for non-violent offenses, many, he says, driven by mental illness and drug addiction.
The State prison population has similarly soared in South Dakota, going from 745 adult inmates in FY 1982 to 3,428 in FY 2006, a 360 percent increase (data taken from South Dakota Department of Corrections website). Average daily State adult inmate count was 3,387 in FY 2009, having somewhat leveled off since FY 2006. As of September 2009, 19 percent of South Dakota's State prison inmates were serving time for drug offenses, nearly two-thirds of those for "possession" of a controlled substance. Another 40 percent were serving time for non-violent crimes other than drug offenses. Only 40 percent of the total were in prison for crimes classified as "violent". (The remaining 1 percent were in the "Federal/Out of State" classification.)
Tragically, 28.5 percent of South Dakota's adult prison population is made up of Native Americans, even though Native Americans make up only 8.8 percent of the State's population. Only one of South Dakota's nine-member Board of Pardon's and Parole is a Native American person ("6 of 9 Members Are New to Job", Argus Leader, October 29, 2009)!
Aggregate statistics tell only part of the story for South Dakota. Many of the speakers at the recent Peace and Justice Center conference told heart-wrenching stories about clients (without compromising confidentiality obligations), and others who had become caught up in the criminal justice system. They told of the challenges faced by the poor and minorities in receiving fair trials, of unnecessarily harsh prison sentences (sometimes required by law), and of a sex crime registration law in South Dakota that lumps a wide range of sex offences and offenders together and requires lifetime registration.
One of the most egregious sentencing laws, which the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center has been working to change, covers the sentencing guideline for 1st degree manslaughter. South Dakota is one of only two States in the entire nation that allows a life sentence for this crime (The South Dakota Sun, a publication of the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, June 2009). The other is Oklahoma. But Oklahoma at least allows for the possibility of parole, which South Dakota does not. According to the Peace and Justice Center, eight of the thirteen Native American prisoners serving time for 1st degree manslaughter in the South Dakota system in 2006 were serving life sentences (The South Dakota Sun, December 2008).
Statistics and stories about South Dakota's criminal justice system give me the strong impression of needless 'human waste'. But there are alternative approaches.
Alternative approaches, emphasizing 'justice' and 'human capital'
Although I came away from the Peace and Justice conference depressed, I also came away with hope. There are many good people and ideas at work in South Dakota's criminal justice system. There are public defense lawyers who are working valiantly in pursuit of true justice, and various individuals and organizations are involved in valuable healing and reentry programs. Jamie Bissonette, Coordinator for the Healing Justice Program of the American Friends Service Committee in New England, also brought ideas to the conference that have potential for building a more just and productive corrections system in South Dakota.
Human justice, not any narrow cost-benefit system of economics, should drive societies' approaches to criminal justice. But jam-packed prisons across the nation, and the associated costs of building and operating those prisons, are forcing reassessments of our approaches to crime and punishment in this country. At the national level, Senator Jim Webb is providing badly needed leadership to criminal justice reform.
Promising alternative approaches are being tried in some communities. The Economist article cited previously in this column recounts an alternative approach to neighborhood drug problems in High Point, North Carolina. Instead of simply arresting and sending off to prison nearly everyone possessing drugs in police raids, the police became more involved in the community and identified which street dealers were habitually violent. They arrested and prosecuted the violent ones. The others, the great majority, were brought in and shown the evidence against them. A 'community coordinator' asked each of them what assistance they needed to change their life styles - a job, drug treatment, a place to stay, or whatever. They were warned that they could either stop dealing drugs immediately or face prosecution and jail time. According to The Economist article, nearly all of the low-level, non-violent dealers reformed.
This is an approach that recognizes the 'human capital' potential in people, instead of treating everyone who could be prosecuted as 'human waste'. Relatively modest investments in people who have made mistakes can sometimes help them lead more productive lives and, at the same time, save society the enormous costs associated with incarceration. The Department of Corrections website indicates that it costs $65/day to house an inmate in the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. (The website does not indicate if this includes costs of building depreciation.) This is nearly $24,000/year. The average length of stay to first release of an adult male inmate in South Dakota is 20 months (1.67 years). The public cost of that average incarceration is approximately $40,000. This would buy more than three years at a public university in South Dakota (roughly $11,000/year, including room and board, according to an AP article in the October 31, 2009 Argus Leader, "SD Higher Ed Costs Near National Average"). Think of what a 'human capital' investment of that magnitude might do in getting some young person on the right path for life, as an alternative to prison.
I'm not suggesting that we simply give non-violent drug offenders the choice between a $40,000 handout (or free college education) and 20 months in jail. What I am suggesting is that we think creatively about how we use public corrections dollars, and that various combinations of human capital investments may make a lot more sense than the extremely harsh, punitive approaches that feature so prominently in our criminal justice system today.
Copyright 2009 by Thomas L. Dobbs. All further publication rights are reserved by the author.