Crime Pays A Great Deal… for The Prison System

CBS News begins the story this way:

While the old saying notes that crime doesn’t pay, that doesn’t hold true for America’s system of incarceration, which has seen spending more than triple since 1980.

That means each U.S. resident is paying about $260 per year on corrections, up from $77 per person in 1980, thanks to the country’s annual $80 billion price tag for incarceration, according to a new report from The Hamilton Project, which is part of Washington, D.C., think tank The Brookings Institution.

Prison is an amazing way for a society to deal with crime. Not only does crime prevention cost money, but the punishment of crime is imposed on the victims, not the perpetrators. Of course, those convicted of a crime do “pay” in a non-productive sense. But the nature of their punishment arguably makes them unfit for virtually any life other than a life of crime. also covers the Brookings Institution’s report with some nice graphs. If you look at some of them closely, you will notice that we may have peaked in some areas. For example these two end on a point lower than a few years earlier:

crime v incarceration

spending on incarceration

Charles Lane at the Washington Post comes down pretty hard on the report for not acknowledging that the situation is improving:

The number of state and federal inmates peaked in 2009 and has shrunk consistently thereafter, according to the Justice Department. New prison admissions have fallen annually since 2005.

The inmate population is still disproportionately African American — 38 percent vs. 13 percent for the general population — but the incarceration rate for black men fell 9.8 percent between 2000 and 2009, according to the Sentencing Project.

This is not, however, the impression one would get from a new 464-page report from the prestigious National Research Council, which, like other think-tank output and media coverage of late, downplays recent progress in favor of a scarier but outdated narrative.

OK, yes, the report could have emphasized recent gains, but we don’t know yet if those will be a lasting trend.

A more serious charge against the report is that the analysis ignores the basic reality of crime and punishment. The report argues that crime rates have gone down and yet we have more people in prison. But it doesn’t consider that maybe that is the reason crime rates have dropped. Lane writes,

It’s easy to pass judgment on the policymakers of that violent era, when the homicide rate was double what it is today and crime regularly topped pollsters’ lists of voter concerns.

That had a racial component, but minorities were, and are, disproportionately victims of crime, too. The NRC report extensively discusses the negative effect on communities of incarcerating criminals, but it has comparatively little to say about the social impact of unchecked victimization.

Buried within the report is the fact that, in 1981, the average time served for murder was just five years; by 2000, it had risen to 16.9 years. The numbers for rape were 3.4 and 6.6 years, respectively. Insofar as “mass incarceration” reflects those changes — and the majority of state prisoners are in for violent crimes — it’s a positive development.

Agreed, but why shouldn’t all homicides be punished by death? And why shouldn’t violent coercive rape be a capital crime? If doubling the years served has brought down the violent crime rates, then the death penalty should produce a still much lower crime rate.

“If we released all drug offenders,” writes Lane, “the incarceration rate would still be much higher than that of Europe.” So be it. But the fact that the U.S. has more violent offenders than Europe doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t make sense making taxpayers to pay for jailing non-violent offenders.