« New spending bill includes a lot more money for Justice Department to fight drug war even harder | Main | High-profile New Jersey case highlights many challenges of sentencing drunk drivers who kill (and appellate review of sentences) »

March 25, 2018

"Prison Crime and the Economics of Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Ben Gifford now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

As America’s prison and jail populations have skyrocketed, a wealth of empirical scholarship has emerged to measure the benefits and costs of incarceration.  The benefits, from an empirical perspective, consist of the amount of crime prevented by locking people up, as well as the value of that prevented crime to society.  The costs consist of direct state expenditures, lost inmate productivity, and a host of other collateral harms.  Once these benefits and costs are quantified, empirical scholars are able to assess whether it “pays,” from an economic perspective, to incarcerate more or fewer criminals than we currently do.

Drawing on this academic literature, policymakers at all levels of government have begun using cost-benefit analysis to address a wide range of criminal justice issues. In addition to evaluating broader proposals to increase or decrease incarceration rates, policymakers are assessing the costs and benefits of myriad narrower reforms that implicate the economics of incarceration.  In each of these areas, policymakers rely heavily on empirical scholars’ work, whether by adopting their general methods or incorporating their specific results.

While these economic analyses of incarceration offer important insights, they suffer from a near-universal flaw: they fail to account for crime that occurs within prisons and jails. Instead, when scholars and policymakers measure the benefits of incarceration, they look only to crime prevented “in society.”  Similarly, when they measure the costs, they ignore the pains of victimization suffered by inmates and prison staff.  This exclusion is significant, as prison crime is rampant, both in relative and absolute terms.

To address this oversight, this Article makes several contributions: First, it provides a comprehensive review of the literature on the benefits and costs of incarceration, and it explores a range of ways in which policymakers are applying this economic framework.  Second, it makes a sustained normative argument for the inclusion of prison crime in our economic calculus.  Third, it draws on the scarce available data to estimate the impact that the inclusion of prison crime has on our cost-benefit analyses.  As might be expected, once prison crime is accounted for, the economics of incarceration become significantly less favorable.

March 25, 2018 at 01:17 PM | Permalink


Prison crime is 100% the fault of the lawyer and judge profession. You may not even criticize a prisoner without losing your job. The place to start to remedy this ridiculous situation is to hunt and beat the asses of lawyer legislators and judges. Do not kill them. They will be replaced by grateful competitors. Beat their asses. To deter.

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 25, 2018 1:24:19 PM

Spend $40,000/year save $2 million/year, in outside damages prevented. There is no greater return on investment for any other human enterprise, 5000%/year, guaranteed year over year for the life of the incarcerated.

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 25, 2018 1:28:05 PM

The Harvard Law School radicalized lawyer has 5 crimes a year, instead of my 200. He has a value of damage from each up to $28,000 each, instead of my $10,000.

I can tell everyone with a job here, they are committing 3 federal felonies a day. So, his estimate of 5 a year is low for hardened, and career criminals. Any study of surveys of crime should guarantee immunity for all reports.

His $28000 estimate of damage per crime, is for direct and indirect costs, such as health care of victims. He does not include collateral costs such as dropping the value of real estate in the vicinity of a crime to close to zero.

He was a Law Review editor, so I am disappointed by his fact checking. If the Stanford Law review still uses law students as editors, that is professional journal malpractice. Imagine using 2nd year med students for a surgery journal, or second year grad students for bridge engineering journal. If lucky, those 2nd year med students have had a 6 week surgery rotation, and know little more than patients about surgery.

The article should have been sent to a criminologist for review of the facts.

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 26, 2018 12:55:13 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB