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The costs and effects of mass imprisonment

Here’s a long, detailed article that summarizes the current research on crime and imprisonment and the costs of the latter on society. There’s way to much to try to encapsulate here, but I do want to highlight these three paragraphs, since I think they’re at the heart of the debate here in Harris County and Texas:

Skeptics may concede that mass incarceration injured social justice, but surely, they would contend, it contributed to the tremendous decline in crime through the 1990s. Indeed, the crime decline of the ’90s produced a great improvement in public safety. From 1993 to 2001, the violent crime rate fell considerably, murder rates in big cities like New York and Los Angeles dropped by half or more, and this progress in social wellbeing was recorded by rich and poor alike. Yet, when I analyzed crime rates in this period, I found that rising prison populations did not reduce crime by much. The growth in state imprisonment accounted for 2-5 percent of the decline in serious crime–one-tenth of the crime drop from 1993 to 2001. The remaining nine-tenths was due to factors like the increasing size of local police forces, the pacification of the drug trade following the crack epidemic of the early 1990s, and the role of local circumstances that resist a general explanation.

So a modest decline in serious crime over an eight year period was purchased for $53 billion in additional correctional spending and half a million new prison inmates: a large price to pay for a small reduction. If we add the lost earnings of prisoners to the family disruption and community instability produced by mass incarceration, we cannot but acknowledge that a steep price was paid for a small improvement in public safety. Several examples further demonstrate that the boom may have been a waste because crime can be controlled without large increases in imprisonment. Violent crime in Canada, for example, also declined greatly through the 1990s, but Canadian incarceration rates actually fell from 1991 to 1999. New York maintained particularly low crime rates through the 2000s, but has been one of the few states to cut its prison population in recent years.

More importantly, perhaps, the reduction in crime was accompanied by an array of new problems associated with mass incarceration. Those states that have sought reduced crime through mass incarceration find themselves faced with an array of problems associated with overreliance on imprisonment. How can poor communities with few resources absorb the return of 700,000 prisoners each year? How can states pay for their prisons while responding to the competing demands of higher education, Medicaid, and K-12 schools? How can we address the social costs–the broken homes, unemployment, and crime–that can follow from imprisonment? Questions such as these lead us to a more fundamental concern: how can mass imprisonment be reversed and American citizenship repaired?

Here again, this is why I refuse to vote for jail bonds. We’re spending tons of money to incarcerate people who don’t need to be locked up, and not only is that having a negligible effect on the crime rate, it costs us in many other ways and prevents us from spending money on other urgent needs. Yet people who would call themselves “fiscally conservative” are perfectly happy to spend these ever-increasing sums, without any honest accounting of the results we get for them. It’s tragic and wasteful and I want to see it stopped.

As I said, there’s much more in this article, including a look at what a saner alternative approach might be, and how some of those approaches are working in the real world. Take a look in particular at what Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes is doing. Link via Crooked Timber.

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  1. Baby Snooks says:

    The vast majority of those incarcerated for “victimless crimes” are of course minorities and of course reflects the main agenda of the Republican Party which is “keeping minorities in their place” which to quite a few Republicans means in their kitchens or in prison.

  2. julia says:

    You know, I tend to suspect that a lot of it goes to an effect of increased incarceration that people don’t seem to be considering: prisoners are counted in the census as residents of the community they’re incarcerated in.

    So where are the prisons built? In the exurbs, and in rural communities.

    And those exurbs and rural communities get extra congressional representation because they’re involuntarily inhabited by people who aren’t eligible to vote.