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October 21, 2011

"Balanced Justice: Cost-Benefit Analysis and Criminal Justice Policy"

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The title of this post is the title of this notable new research paper from NYU's Institute for Policy Integrity, which urges policymakers to apply more economic analysis and cost/benefit research to criminal justice policy. Here is how the report is described via this webpage

Crime and justice are not usually associated with cost-benefit analysis. But they should be, according to new research. This is especially true in an economic downturn, when government funding is scarce. In “Balanced Justice,” released jointly with the Center for the Administration of Criminal Law, author Jennifer Rosenberg reviews a growing body of research showing that counting the costs and benefits of our nation’s justice system can highlight areas of improvement that can save billions of taxpayer dollars without compromising public safety.

Instead of incarceration, behavioral therapy for young offenders is saving Washington State money and keeping citizens safer.  In Hawaii, intensive supervision is keeping parolees out of expensive penitentiaries and keeping cash in state coffers.  And all over the country, drug courts have proven cost-effective alternatives to standard prison sentences, lowering recidivism rates and earning taxpayers sizeable returns on investment.

These results show how powerful the use of economic analysis can be when applied to criminal justice policy.  Many of these initiatives cost less than incarceration and future benefits can dwarf the administrative costs of implementing new criminal justice programs.

Over at The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen has this effective follow-up commentary on this new report, which concludes with these insightful points:

It's been 23 years now since George H.W. Bush used the infamous "Willie Horton" campaign advertisement to portray Michael Dukakis as "soft on crime."  It's been nearly twice that long since the so-called "silent majority" took back the streets.  Violent crime is down.  But generations of Americans have come and gone accepting the shibboleth that the easiest answer about criminal justice -- lock 'em up and throw away the key -- is the best answer about criminal justice.

The price we have paid for this lazy calculus is dear: our prisons now are teeming with inmates, the highest population in the world, and many of our states can no longer afford to adequately house them.  Of course, many criminals deserve to be there.  But many do not.  For years there has been a strong economic case for legalizing (and taxing) marijuana.  And now, more broadly, there is a stronger economic case for keeping more criminals out of prison.

The NYU study represents a smart new way of looking at an old problem; an economic evaluation that strips away some of the emotion (and demagogeury) that surrounds any discussion of crime and justice.  It's easier to be "tough on crime" when you can pay the price, right?  But now we can't.  And the collective poverty within our criminal justice systems isn't going to ease on its own.  So bring in the economists! And let the stale, old law-and-order crowd step aside.

October 21, 2011 at 08:39 AM | Permalink

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Comments

"So bring in the economists! And let the stale, old law-and-order crowd step aside."

They should absolutely step aside if they have failed. But of course they have not failed; they have massively succeeded. On their watch, crime is down between 40 and 50 percent.

What Andrew Cohen wants us to do is turn our backs on this stunning success (which he refuses to acknowledge) and return to what we already know fails -- the phony rehabilitation programs of the 60's and 70's when crime was skyrocketing.

And these are the same airhead academics who happily describe themselves as "smart on crime."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 21, 2011 8:54:55 AM

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