Sustained Outrage

The high cost of incarceration

There was an interesting study published this month by the Center for Economic and Policy Research that suggested that if the United States were to release half of the non-violent offenders currently in prison or jail, federal, state and local governments would save $16.9 billion. That figure represents 22.8 percent of the $75 billion spent on corrections in 2008, the majority of which went to incarceration.

Numerically, the proposal would reduce the total prison and jail population (2,304,115) by 712,119, or 31 percent. The reductions would save the federal government around $2.1 billion (the feds have many fewer prisoners), state governments (who oversee the most prisoners) $7.6 billion, and local governments $7.2 billion.

(You can read related posts here, here and here.)

The study reminds us of a few alarming facts about how the prison population has exploded in recent decades.

— At 753 per 100,000 population, the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate of any member country of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. America locks up more of its citizens than Iceland, Japan, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany and Italy combined.

— Since 1980, rates of people locked up in America have skyrocketed: 220 per 100,000 in 1980; 458 in 1990; 683 in 2000, to 753 in 2008.

— Since 1980, America’s prison population has increased by 350 percent, while the overall population has only gone up 33 percent.

— Crime has not increased at anywhere near the same rate to justify the booming prison and jail population. In fact, it has been decreasing steadily since its peak in 1992. If the rate of people incarcerated corresponded with crime rates (using the 220 per 100,000 in 1980 as the starting point), then the ratio would have been highest at 317 in 1992, and by 2008 would have gone down to around 227.

It’s not hard to figure out, according to the study’s authors, why the prison and jail population has grown so explosively:

Stricter sentencing policies, particularly for drug-related offenses, rather than rising crime, are the main culprit behind skyrocketing incarceration rates. The last three decades have seen the implementation of new “tough on crime” policies such as three-strikes laws, truth in sentencing laws, and mandatory minimums. These laws have led to a significant increase in the number people who are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Arrests and convictions for drug offenses have increased dramatically over the last three decades, with non-violent drug offenders now accounting for about one-fourth of all offenders behind bars (see Table 3), up from less than 10 percent in 1980. Additionally, during this period, the criminal justice system has moved away from the use of probation and parole. As a result, convicted criminals today are much more likely than in the past to be sentenced to prison or jail, instead of probation, and to serve longer terms, with less chance of being released on parole.

While the increase in incarceration is better explained by a shift to harsher sentencing policy than by an explosion in crime, can the case be made that higher levels of incarceration have helped to reduce crime? In a recent review of the extensive research on the relationship between incarceration and crime, Don Stemen, of the Vera Institute of Justice, concludes: “The most sophisticated analyses generally agree that increased incarceration rates have some effect on reducing crime, but the scope of that impact is limited: a 10 percent increase in incarceration is associated with a 2 to 4 percent drop in crime. Moreover, analysts are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that continued growth in incarceration will prevent considerably fewer, if any, crimes than past increases did and will cost taxpayers substantially more to achieve.”

Thus, the available evidence suggests that the higher rates of incarceration have made some contribution to lowering the crime rate, either by acting as a deterrent or by warehousing offenders during the ages in their lives when they are most likely to commit crimes. But, the impact of incarceration on crime rates is surprisingly small, and must be weighed against both its high monetary costs to government budgets and its high social costs to prisoners, their families, and their communities.

However, there is at least one small indication that governments may be catching on that there may be benefits, financial and otherwise, to having smaller prison and jail populations. According to this study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of total prisoners in America’s jails at mid-year 2009 was down from the previous year, the first time the total has decreased since 2000.