excerpted from the book
Crime and Punishment in America
Why solutions to America's
most stubborn social crisis have not worked - and what will
by Elliott Currie
Henry Holt, 1998, paper
What the experience of the past twenty-five years would seem to
tell us, then, is that we have paid a steep price for an approach
to violent crime that is badly out of balance. More than any other
developed country in the world, we have relied on the jails and
prisons as our first defense against crime; yet we still maintain
the developed world's worst level of violence. And we have systematically
depleted other public institutions in order to pay for our incarceration
binge-a self-defeating course that helps to ensure that violent
crime will remain high despite ever more drastic efforts to contain
Not everyone, however, would agree with
this assessment. Indeed, we often hear a very different story.
In the face of the reality that we use incarceration far more
than most other nations and have dramatically increased it in
recent years, we hear that America is "soft" on crime.
In the face of sobering evidence that mass incarceration has had
little impact on violent crime, we're told that "prison works."
And in the face of evidence that this reactive strategy has been
not only ineffective but enormously costly, we hear that "prison
pays." The problem, we're told, is not that we have overemphasized
incarceration at the other expense of other | approaches to crime,
but that we haven't incarcerated enough.
Many Americans believe that the main reason we remain a frighteningly
violent country is that we are shockingly lenient with criminals.
That would seem, at first glance, a difficult position to maintain
in the country that boasts the developed world's highest imprisonment
rate. And, in fact, the idea that serious, violent criminals are
treated leniently in the United States is a myth.
"For every dollar we spend to keep a serious criminal behind
bars," John DiIulio writes, "we save ourselves at least
two or three. The $16,000 to $25,000 a year it takes to incarcerate
a felon is in fact a bargain, when balanced against the social
costs of the crimes he would commit if free." James Q. Wilson,
similarly, states it as a matter of undisputed fact that "all
of the estimates of the cost of the prison population suggest
that the benefits in terms of crimes avoided exceeded the cost
by a factor of at least two to one."
Once again, the historical record would
seem to contradict this position. Twenty-five years of the "prison
experiment" have sucked up tens of billions of public dollars,
but violent crime has stubbornly refused to respond in any consistent
fashion. Yet the idea that prison, in spite of this record, is
a "bargain" is on its way to becoming a fixture of the
public discussion of crime in America.
The reasons aren't hard to find. In the
late 1980s, as violence kept rising in the face of huge expenditures
on prisons, a new set of constituencies began to weigh in against
indiscriminate incarceration. Local and state officials, in particular,
along with some farsighted business people, began looking at the
prison spending explosion and wondering whether it was a bad deal
in sheer economic terms. State officials began to realize that
beyond a certain point building prisons meant they couldn't build
colleges. Corporate executives began worrying about where they
were going to get a competent work force if the government starved
schools in favor of prisons. These concerns were rarely an expression
of bleeding-heart leniency, but more often of hard, businesslike
Enter the "prison pays" argument-designed
to show that prison not only stops crime but saves money in the
process. Like the "prison works" argument, with which
it is often yoked, this "myth of costlessness" is frequently
supported by studies of great complexity and mathematical ingenuity.
They involve calculating how much, in dollar terms, various kinds
of crimes cost society and then estimating how many crimes are
prevented by locking offenders up-and essentially multiplying
the two to arrive at an estimate of the economic benefit of incarceration.
Sometimes these calculations are quite sophisticated, even useful.
Sometimes they are utterly fantastic.
A notorious 1994 study from the California
governor's Office of Planning and Research, for example, claimed
that the state's "three strikes and you're out" law,
by locking up tens of thousands of new offenders, would save the
state vast amounts of money. That was a surprising conclusion,
since most analysts, including the state's own Department of Corrections,
were predicting that it could cost the state several billion dollars.
It turns out that the governor's researchers arrived at their
more optimistic view in part by predicting that the three-strikes
measure would prevent large numbers of homicides every year-more,
in fact, than now occur in California.
.. we now spend [approximately] 40 billion a year on locking people
As a recent report from New York's Vera Institute of Justice puts
it, incarceration has a number of "unintended consequences"-consequences
that, even in the simplest economic terms, undercut its benefits.
To take just one example, the rapid increase
in the numbers of women behind bars-most of them mothers, many
of them imprisoned on relatively minor drug charges or for property
crimes related to their addiction-has left us with a growing problem
of parentless children. Where on the cost-benefit ledger have
we entered the costs of their substitute care, or their increased
risks of delinquency, welfare dependency, or drug abuse in the
future? The unprecedented rise in the incarceration of women will
also put new pressures on already strained prison health-care
systems. As James Marquart of the University of Texas and his
colleagues write, "The full impact of the growth in the female
prisoner population and concomitant medical costs has yet to be
fully explored or considered. Incarcerating more women, coupled
with their unique health demands, will be a costly crime control
Other hidden costs will be generated by
the rapid increase in the proportion of older inmates, which has
resulted in part from the growing number of "lifers"
under mandatory-sentencing schemes like "three strikes"
in California. Between 1986 and 1995, the proportion of the state
prison population serving life sentences or sentences of twenty
years or more increased by nearly half, from 17 to 25 percent;
by the year 200O, there may be more than 50,000 state prison inmates
over the age of sixty-five, with correspondingly greater-and more
expensive-needs for medical care.
Finally, the dwindling availability of
serious vocational training or education in many prison systems
means that most ex-inmates leave prison today even less able to
fit into an ever more demanding labor market than they were when
they went in; they've acquired the stigma of prison without increasing
their capacity to function on the outside. (As the British criminologist
David Garland notes, this is a deeper meaning of the idea that
prison "incapacitates offenders.) To the extent that incarceration
aggravates the already severe labor-market problems of their mostly
low-income, poorly educated inmates, it will increase the costs
to the public sector of dealing with them on the outside-through
public assistance, drug treatment, and emergency health care,
as well as in lost taxes and economic productivity.
This points to a more general, and even
more troubling, issue. It is undeniable that the experience of
going to prison reduces recidivism among some offenders. But it
is equally undeniable that it increases recidivism among others.
Indeed, the tendency for incarceration to make some criminals
worse is one of the best established findings in criminology,
and it has been recently confirmed by highly sophisticated research.
In a study of delinquent youth in Massachusetts, for example,
John H. Laub and Robert Sampson have shown that going to prison
often increased the chances of their committing further crimes
as adults, mainly because it reduced their prospects of getting
a stable job. Obviously, to the extent that prisons increase the
propensity of some people to commit crime, their economic benefits
will shrink and their real costs will go up. But this problem
is ignored in most discussions of the economic benefits of incarceration.
Just as the "benefits" of incarceration are routinely
exaggerated, in short, so too are the "costs" of imprisonment
In the end, what the studies of the costs
and benefits of imprisonment most clearly tell us is that critics
of indiscriminate incarceration have been right all along. No
matter how the numbers are manipulated, the results confirm that
prison makes sense for some offenders but not for others. It makes
a great deal of sense for truly violent people, but its utility
dwindles to the vanishing point for minor property offenders,
not to mention minor drug offenders, who are horrendously expensive
to incarcerate even by the most generous "economic"
The economic inefficiency of incarceration
for nonviolent offenders is especially troublesome given the thrust
of the new conservative penal policy, which is not only to incarcerate
those offenders but to sentence them to long terms. Even leaving
aside any questions about the way costs and benefits are calculated
in some of these studies, they show that the net costs of the
lengthy imprisonment of minor offenders are staggering. Take the
Miller et al ... [study] The average burglary, they estimate,
costs society $1,400. Suppose the average burglar commits ten
burglaries a year. Society would thus "save" $14,000
a year by locking him up. Locking him up for a minimum of twenty
years on a third conviction, as California's three-strikes law
mandates, would "save" $280,000. But it would also cost
(at least) $21,000 a year, meaning that the social deficit each
year is roughly $7,00O, or a net loss of $140,000 over twenty
years. (Note that this calculation excludes the cost of prison
construction.) And that is for the most serious of property crimes.
If we do the same exercise with larceny the losses are ~ stratospheric.
Ten thefts a year would cost society, on average $3,700. A year's
incarceration thus generates a net cost of more than $17,000.
Thirty years under a Draconian habitual-offender sentence would
cost society half a million dollars. Even if we assume an average
of twenty-five thefts a year, the annual net expense of incarcerating
the thief remains about $12,00O, and the "lifetime"
expense over $350,000.
Indeed, this is actually an underestimate
of the net costs of incarcerating minor offenders, because it
assumes they would continue, if on the street, to commit crimes
at the same high rate even as they get older. But we know from
a host of careful studies that they will not; instead, they are
likely to "age out" of high-rate offending, and by middle
age many will have radically slowed if not stopped altogether.
("Aging-out," in fact, is one of the most predictable
phenomena in criminology.) Meanwhile, the cost of keeping these
offenders in prison begins to rise inexorably as their advancing
age leads to increased expenses for medical care. It is very difficult,
in short, to come up with a credible calculation in which prison
"pays" for most nonviolent offenders. As we sweep more
and more of them behind bars, for ever longer sentences, we are
increasingly pouring money into an enterprise with small and constantly
diminishing returns. The social programs of the 1960s I were often
criticized for "throwing money at problems"; this is
throwing money at problems, with a vengeance.
1995 study of New Jersey inmates by John DiIulio and Anne Piehl
DiIulio and Piehl acknowledge, putting
ordinary drug offenders behind bars has very little effect on
the rates of drug-related crime. They argue, indeed, that "the
best estimate of the incapacitation effect (number of drug sales
prevented by incarcerating a drug dealer) is zero." Hence
the economic benefit of prison for most of these offenders is
also zero. And because of the war on drugs, there are a lot of
such people in prison; fully 27 percent of their New Jersey sample
of inmates said that in the four months before being imprisoned
their only offense was drug sales. Piehl and DiIulio found that
when drug offenders were added to the calculation, prison even
for the offender at the median level of social cost turns out
to be "cost-ineffective"; that is, for more than half
the offenders behind bars in New Jersey, it is more expensive
to society to keep them behind.
and Punishment in America