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April 21, 2016

Economists explain "Why Mass Incarceration Doesn’t Pay"

Social-costs-and-benefits-1-638Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and Douglas Holtz­-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, have this new New York Times commentary headlined "Why Mass Incarceration Doesn’t Pay." Here are excerpts:

Congress is considering bipartisan legislation to loosen tough sentencing laws. The bill faces resistance from some lawmakers. As economists who differ on many issues, we both agree that cost­benefit analysis provides a useful framework for analyzing complicated questions. And in this case, we agree that the verdict of such analysis is clear: Our sentencing rules are failing and need to be changed.

On the benefit side of the equation, prisons and jails play an essential role in managing violent criminals and reducing crime, particularly helping people in poor communities who are the most likely to be victims of murder, robbery or other violent crimes.

But a general rule in economics — the law of diminishing marginal benefits — applies to incarcerating additional people or adding years to sentences. Research finds that more incarceration has, at best, only a small effect on crime because our incarceration rate is already so high. As the prison population gets larger, the additional prisoner is more likely to be a less risky, nonviolent offender, and the value of incarcerating him (or, less likely, her) is low.

The same general principle applies to the length of prison sentences, which in many cases have gotten longer as a result of sentence enhancements, repeat­offender laws, “three strikes” laws and “truth-­in-­sentencing” laws. Longer sentences do not appear to have a deterrent effect; one study finds, for example, that the threat of longer sentences has little impact on juvenile arrest rates. Other studies have found that sentencing enhancements have only modest effects on crime. They are unlikely to meaningfully affect the overall crime rate or generate meaningful gains in public safety.

Moreover, in many cases the analysis suggests that adding prisoners or years to sentences can be harmful. A growing body of research shows that incarceration and longer sentences could increase recidivism. Individuals may build criminal ties while incarcerated, lose their labor­-market skills and confront substantial obstacles to re­entry after release. A new study finds that each additional year of incarceration increases the likelihood of re­offending by four to seven percentage points after release.

The bottom line: The putative benefits of more incarceration or longer sentences are actually costs. Those costs are not confined to the prison population. Time in prison not only means a loss of freedom, but it also means a loss of earnings, risks to the health and safety of the incarcerated, and prolonged absences from family that can strain marriages and increase behavioral problems in children. The probability that a family is in poverty increases by nearly 40 percent while a father is incarcerated....

Finally, more than $80 billion is spent annually on corrections, or over $600 per household. The annual cost of imprisoning one person averages approximately $30,000 for adults and $110,000 for juveniles, higher than the cost of a year of college. At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons budget grew 1,700 percent from 1980 to 2010 and now devours more than 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget.

There are other tools that can reduce crime more cost­-effectively, including promoting employment and wage growth and investing in education. That is one reason that between 2008 and 2012, a majority of states were able to reduce incarceration and crime. Incarceration plays an important role in promoting public safety, and imposing prison sentences for criminal conduct has moral and practical dimensions. But the criminal justice system should be designed to ensure that the benefits of incarceration exceed the costs. Individuals incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes — 50 percent of the federal prison population — pose a low risk, and the costs of incarcerating these people outweigh the benefits.

Similarly, since criminal behavior declines and costs increase with age, releasing older individuals who have already served lengthy sentences is also likely to yield net benefits.

April 21, 2016 at 12:08 PM | Permalink


Stiff sentences, and the threat of stiff sentences, was a big part of breaking the back of the Mafia in NYC.

And what do these guys mean by non-violent drug dealers--are they only talking about the drug offense for which they are federally incarcerated? Wendell Callahan, a felon with a history of serious violence, was deemed to be a "non-violent drug offender." Doug, would you agree with that assessment of Mr. Callahan?

I totally agree, btw, that a prison bed is a scarce resource and should be used wisely and that there are substantial "soft" costs associated with imprisonment, but there are a lot of soft costs with the decreased incapacitation. And anecdotally, there are so so so many stories about people who got lenient sentences for serious crimes and then went on to hurt others.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 21, 2016 12:53:21 PM

"was" s/b "were"

Posted by: federalist | Apr 21, 2016 12:53:45 PM

Mass incarceration does pay. The Catholics at Mass really can not leave until the plate has been passed and they all pay up.

Posted by: BarkinDog | Apr 21, 2016 12:54:56 PM

In my area, drugs are common. Locally they just build a rap sheet and give probation. Then when they really mess up, boom, send them to the Feds and their life is pretty much gone.

3 strikes for drugs, 3-4 of them. Within 1000 ft, difficult not to be. A school, play ground or park. Lots of rough areas were converted into plagrounds. Even though they were 800 ft away and playgrounds are out of sight, they get 2 levels. Psuedo converts to Marjuana equiv, its 5 times higher than street meth, not pure. So if theyve dumped the empty bluster packs, get a much lower sentence.

Crack dudes got a 2 level drop with the 100-1 ratio. Meth should get a 2 level drop.

I know a drugs -2 was just made retro active, but hey arent white lives important also.
All I hear is the Naacp and how blacks are impovershed.

The mandatories need to go. Bill Otis camp ie: Sen Grassley says they need them to for e terrorists to comply. Great, then make it be a requirement to only use them for terrorists.

Federal inmates serve 5 times longer sentences than state inmates. That pretty much sums it up. Also Federal supervised release is 3-4 times longer than state parole/probation. Its very difficult to get out if the federal system, once your in.

So, yes I Agree we over sentenceing terribly at the federal level. But look at how many jobs will be lost if lower sentences. Private corporTions that lobbly for longer sentences so they protect there livlihood.

So thats another got ya. With the FSA they added 2 level i creSe for running a drug house.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Apr 21, 2016 6:58:16 PM

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