Pay-If-You-Go Prisons?

Inspired by Bernie Madoff‘s 150-year prison sentence, New York state assemblyman Jim Tedisco introduced a bill that, as the Economist reports, would establish a “pay-if-you-go” model for prisons, whereby wealthy inmates pay for their own incarceration costs, thereby easing the burden on taxpayers. Detractors argue, however, that adding to inmates’ debt might push them into more crime and concentrate the financial burden on their families. Addendum: Daniel Freedman also made the case for a “pay-if-you-go” system in this Forbes column back in March.[%comments]


Ever seen the movie Brazil? This "solution" is pretty much the cause of the final third of the movie.


Bring back the chain-gangs.

Mike B

What about paying to get out of prison? More social good can be done with the fortune of a wealthy felon than by putting him in jail. Moreover the possibility of living in poverty would probably make a fine disincentive to prevent the wealthy from acting with impunity. If you asked members of the general public if they would rather have the lives of a large number of people saved by free medical care I wonder which they would choose? Remember, opportunity costs are still costs.


They tried this in the Old Countries. Didn't work in that it ended up making the criminals perpetual criminals. Also, it creates a class system in the slam - those able to pay get better cells, food and so forth. Paying for your own incarceration is not a good idea, that's why civilized countries abandoned it, oh, a couple of centuries ago.


I believe Tedisco's bill only applies when the convict meets a certain minimum income.

Morton Kurzweil

Why not. We have a pray as you go, prey as you go, and pry as you go culture ready and waiting for another populist shoe to drop from the special interest centipede.

Billy C

Some sort of median between years to be imprisoned and income would have to be found in order to determine the income level floor for such a program, how much the criminal would have to pay, and for how long. It seems inevitable that unless the jailbird is very wealthy (with stored/invested income), the debt would be passed onto others if there are involuntary co-signers to the person's monetary commitment. These crooks will not be receiving paid leave for their jail time from their jobs...I hope.

Another issue may be the legalty of forcing family members to pay since they already pay taxes and that they had nothing to do with the crime (possibly).


how about EVERYONE pays their costs...and we have a privatized prison system (gov would regulate, but not provide).

Every criminal would be required to pay for their lodging, etc. If you can't pay...then the state pays for one 9mm. Taxpayers should not be paying exorbitant costs to keep criminals in the pokey.

Carl R

Nice idea in principle.

The decision making process in most local communities is sufficiently corrupt, or at least principle-free, that "wealthly" would be down-defined to mean any and all prisoners get hit with a bill in short order.

More cynically the US has a culture of kicking the poor when they are down, and letting the rich weasel out of things, so this has a whiff of un-Americanism...

Jim Blake

Good old Jimmy Tedesco. He is living in a Dickens' mind frame in the 19th century anyway, why doesn't he just call it a "Debtor's Prison" and be done with it.
Why can't we let the civil courts keep working it out as the do and not get the legislature involved. Especially the NYS legislature! Less is more.


Didn't they used to have 'pay-by-labour' prisons a.k.a. chain gangs? Why don't they just make prison a punishment, and less people would end up there.


@1: No, a poorly-designed system with superficial similarities to this one is the cause of the final third of the movie.

A properly designed system should absolutely extract remuneration from convicted criminals. I would only do it for people above a certain net worth though.


You don't want to make the state have a fiscal interest in imprisoning more people. It's bad enough that we have for-profit private prisons. Imprisonment should be a burden on society, so that we pursue it it only in cases where we as a society are willing to pay the costs.

If you ever, EVER, give bureaucrats the choice to imprison someone with no financial cost, they will abuse it.


This was the norm until modern America. All over the US until state prisons displaced local ones. It was rife with abuse.


Why would adding to the inmates' debt lead to more crime? I assume it means after they are released, not while still imprisoned.

Max M

I worry about how a bureaucrat would define "wealthy", and as other commenters have mentioned, if this would bias the justice system towards imprisoning the wealthy over the poor.

And to whoever said that we shouldn't have private prisons, tell you what - YOU pay for the added bureaucratic overhead for a fully public system and you've got yourself a deal. No? Want me to pay to fund the inefficiencies of your ideology? Hmm...


this also takes the existing accepted punishment for any individual crime and ups the ante unilaterally for a specific set of people. Because one person makes over $40k does that mean they should be punished more than someone else for the same crime?

This is what happens when governments start to get squeezed in the pocket book. They start looking for any source of income without thinking it through economically or morally.

Kevin H

interesting... although it seems like it would encourage recidivism for middle class criminals by making them poor when they got out. Also it seems like it would have distorted effects on families of criminals.

Andre D.

Come on!! First there was privatized prisons, run for profit. Now it'll be like some kind of vacation home for wealthy criminals. I have no doubt that their financial position will dictate their living conditions under such a scheme.

The wealthiest criminals - like grafting CEOs, ponzi schemer's and others - hurt thousands of people by ruining their financial lives. Most murderers only affect a few dozen.

Let them live on the ground floor with the rest of the criminals...some of whom may have gotten there because of them. No special treatment!


#13 Golgafrincham got it right. You cannot let the state profit (or even break even) on something like this. If there's money to be made the state will do what it can to keep making more money. It's way too easy for corruption to take hold.