The most amazing part of this Associated Press story is that this idea didn’t originate in Washington DC. It starts in Richmond, California, which decided to start paying ex-cons to not commit crimes, coughing up $9,000 in annual stipends to program “fellows” who refrain from being Goodfellas. The Washington DC city council liked the idea so much that they want to start paying ex-cons, too:

The D.C. Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a bill that includes a proposal to pay residents a stipend not to commit crimes. It’s based on a program in Richmond, California, that advocates say has contributed to deep reductions in crime there.

Under the bill, city officials would identify up to 200 people a year who are considered at risk of either committing or becoming victims of violent crime. Those people would be directed to participate in behavioral therapy and other programs. If they fulfill those obligations and stay out of trouble, they would be paid.

The bill doesn’t specify the value of the stipends, but participants in the California program receive up to $9,000 per year.

Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, a Democrat who wrote the legislation, said it was part of a comprehensive approach to reducing violent crime in the city, which experienced a 54 percent increase in homicides last year. Homicides and violent crime are still down significantly since the 2000s, and even more so since the early 1990s when the District was dubbed the nation’s “murder capital.”

McDuffie argued that spending $9,000 a year in stipends “pales in comparison” to the cost of someone being victimized, along with the costs of incarcerating the offender.

Huh. And here I thought the proper incentive of not committing more crimes was not going to prison again. Of course, the Washington DC city council has some experience with this, as it offered stipends to Marion Barry after his drug conviction … thanks to voters who put him back in office after he got out of prison. How well did that work out?

At our founding, Benjamin Franklin observed that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” Instead of emphasizing virtue, I argue in my column for The Fiscal Times, these programs incentivize its opposite:

How much did it cost the citizens of Richmond to keep violent felons from attacking them? The “stipend” for each “fellow” in compliance can reach $9,000 a year. Bear in mind that this money comes from people who don’t commit crimes – the taxpayers of Richmond. Washington would open the program for up to 200 people a year and set aside $460,000 in annual stipend payments, or roughly $2,300 per person a year if all qualified for the cash prize for good citizenship … or at least for not getting caught.

Crime may not pay, but after-crime certainly will, and not just for the criminals. The city projects the overall cost of the program in its first four years at $4.9 million, even though the total amount of the stipends comes to only $1.84 million in the same period. Sixty-two percent of the funding will go to the bureaucracy necessary for paying ex-cons to obey the law.

The money would be well spent, some argued, because the cost of preventing more victimization pales in comparison to the damage these “fellows” would otherwise cause. Perhaps it might be cost effective in that narrow sense, but the taxpayers who fund a program that sounds curiously similar to a protection racket might wonder if they’re being victimized anyway. Nice community ya got there, folks. Shame if anything happened to it ….

The money is beside the point, however. As Franklin pointed out, liberty is suited for a virtuous people – those who voluntarily operate in good faith within the framework of self-governance. Virtue by its nature cannot be bought. Those who respond to the social contract only on the basis of wealth incentives will only abide by it to the extent that the cash balances out competing incentives.

Furthermore, the moral impact of such programs reward the threat of implied violence by paying cash to hold them temporarily in abeyance. Rather than incentivizing felons to demonstrate rehabilitation, we’re essentially paying them to be dangerous.

More than a century ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about “paying the Dane-geld.” It’s worth reading in these times as well.