Real Change: Push for a DOJ Ban on Hiring Killer Cops

Protesters across the nation (and the world) are expressing their rage, anger, and frustration at the killing of George Floyd and so many others at the hands of police in the United States. I have no issue with the rage against injustice – I have written about how over 20% of all random homicides in the United States are committed by the police! But as I watch events unfold, my instinct is to try to grasp for solutions. The protesters ask for the arrest of all involved officers – but surely this anger, this protest, can further be channeled toward institutional change? Protests and movements end, and without actionable demands, they often end empty-handed.

Here’s a simple actionable demand to make of both President Trump and Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden:

Direct the Department of Justice to instruct police departments that they will receive $0 in federal funding if they hire any officer previously terminated or disciplined for killing a civilian:

  • Newspapers and non-profits have already compiled substantial lists of officers involved in killing unarmed civilians and other misconduct.
  • If any officer has been involved in such an incident, and is terminated, disciplined, they should be placed on a Department of Justice list. If a jurisdiction pays out a civil settlement with respect to an incident involving an officer, the officer’s name should likewise be placed on the list.
  • Any police department continuing to employ officers listed should no longer be eligible to receive any federal funding or benefit of any kind.

Some have argued that the federal government cannot change the behavior of individual police departments. This policy approach changes that equation – if a department wants to keep employing dangerous officers, they can do so without federal funding. Billions are sent to local police by the federal government annually, through programs including the Department of Defense 1033 program, the COPS Hiring program, the NHTSA’s funding support for traffic safety, and more. This idea is not new, as this Congressional Research Service article indicates.

In economics, we often talk about how incentives drive behavior. The federal government does not directly control the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States – but changing the incentives will change their behavior. No department wants to risk its grant funding, its equipment donations, or other federal support. While everything is politicized these days, this need not be a political football – who wants bad police on the street? If a doctor losing his medical license in one state is unable to practice in another, why is a police officer fired for misconduct able to be re-hired in the same state? I don’t think most police officers want to work with the small minority who engage in criminal conduct either – so this is a simple step to cleaning up law enforcement across the country.

If, as a people, we want real change, let’s come up with concrete solutions. This is my attempt to do that – I hope we can channel the rage on the streets toward solutions, so we don’t find ourselves in the same place in another decade’s time.

America’s Prison Problem

Why does the United States lead the world in both total prisoners and prisoners per capita? The United States had a prison population of 2.4 million in mid-2008, greater than that of any other country, including China. Our per capita imprisonment rate of 750 per 100,000 individuals is several times greater than all other developed nations. It costs US taxpayers roughly $70 Billion per year to care for all of its prisoners, at a per-prisoner cost of roughly $30,000 per year [1]. While this accounts for feeding, housing, guarding, and providing health care for prisoners, it does not account for the economic activity lost with so many held outside of society. Can anything be done to mitigate the tremendous cost and growth rate of America’s prisons without compromising public safety?

The American prison population has grown rapidly over the last several decades, from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.4 million today, while the overall population has grown by only 33% over the same period [2]. As a result of the sheer volume of prisoners and the prison population growth rate, incarceration is now one of the largest costs borne by taxpayers, after defense, health care, and retirement benefits.

How can the US reduce the total cost of incarceration without risking public safety? Roughly half of all US prisoners were imprisoned for non-violent offenses, and imprisoning these ponzi-schemers, drunk drivers, and pot heads provides little benefit. Why not fine them heavily and simply monitor their probation via ankle bracelet? Law-abiding Americans would be better off if the million non-violent offenders behind bars instead were forced to pay financial restitution for their crimes. If even half of these non-violent offenders stayed in the work force, the net benefit to US taxpayers would be roughly $60 Billion per year, including both prison cost reductions and increased economic activity [3].

If common sense doesn’t bring elected officials to explore other forms of punishment for non-violent offenders, then exploding state and federal budgets will force the issue. Witness California, where a federal judge is calling for the release of 43,000 California prisoners to reduce overcrowding. California lacks the funds needed to properly house its prisoners, so it will have to take a hard look at other forms of punishment. Why not use harsh fines and probation to punish non-violent offenders, thereby earning the state money, saving tax dollars, and keeping the economy more productive at the same time?

[1] According to the New York Times, the annual cost to house a prisoner varies widely by state ($12,000 to $45,000), but is rising rapidly nationwide due to rising health care costs. If we assume $30,000 per prisoner per year as a mean, then it costs $72 Billion annually to incarcerate 2.4 million prisoners.

[2] Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that the prison population nearly quintupled from 1980 to 2008 (up 380%), while Census data show that the US population rose only 33% during the same period. The prison population has grown at ten times the rate of the population over the period.

[3] Taxpayers would directly save around $35 Billion annually if the prison population were halved by releasing non-violent offenders into probation. If half of the non-violent offenders were able to gain employment, these 600,000 employed workers would contribute roughly $25 Billion annually to the economy (assuming average US per capita income). The total net benefit to the economy would be around $60 Billion per year.