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April 10, 2008

Pew publication on incarceration's impact on crime

I just received this news of the latest publication from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project, titled “The Impact of Incarceration on Crime: Two National Experts Weigh In.”  The short document can be accessed at this link, and here is Pew's description of the document:

This Question & Answer brief features Dr. Alfred Blumstein and Dr. James Q. Wilson, two of the nation’s most respected experts on incarceration and crime.  Professors Blumstein and Wilson spoke recently with the Public Safety Performance Project, an initiative of the Pew Center on the States (PCS), about the degree to which increased incarceration deserves credit for the drop in crime across the nation, the likely outcomes of continued prison expansion, and some policies and programs that offer better public safety results for taxpayer dollars.

April 10, 2008 at 02:15 PM | Permalink


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Does Mr. Wilson have an opinion on government corruption and its contribution to the crime rate?

Posted by: George | Apr 10, 2008 4:56:29 PM

If I understand the crime control argument correctly the incarcerated inmate is incapacitated and since about two thirds of those released return within three years a third of those incarcerated can be counted as rehabilitated inmates. The cost of crime control is therefore about 4/3 X $25,000 per inmate-year or$33,333 per inmate-year because there is no additional cost for deterrence. I guess this means that the benefits of crime control have to be larger than $35,000 per year to be cost effective,

The problem that I see is that there are no benefits to deterrence because an uncommitted crime does not cost anything. I doubt if an auditor will allow you to include the cost of something that might have happened as a benefit. My experience is that most people are not persuaded by an argument that deterrence is an effective crime control measure.

For drug trafficking, car theft rings and computer fraud there are no crime control benefits from incarceration because the incarcerated offender can be replaced. It seems to me that crime control benefits from incarceration are restricted to robbery, burglary, theft and forgery/fraud.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 11, 2008 12:22:28 AM

It's simply incorrect to claim that there is no benefit from deterrence because you cannot account for harms that do not happen (and note that the argument applies to incapacitation as well, and no criminologist of any caliber denies that there is an incapacitative effect to incarceration). This is identical to saying there is no health benefit to quitting smoking, because there is no gain to not getting cancer. Or that there is no benefit to environmental laws that prevent the ozone hole from growing. And so on, and so on. All cost-benefit analysis is based on comparing the actual outcome to a counterfactual and asking what the difference is.

Posted by: John | Apr 11, 2008 10:19:39 AM

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