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by Peter Moskos

February 29, 2008

Shocks the conscience

One-in-a-hundred adult Americans is behind bars. This figure has shocked some people since it made the headlines the other day.

The Times quoted a Professor Cassell as saying that our rate of imprisonment has “very tangible benefits: lower crime rates.” But this isn’t true. The prison rate has been increasing since 1970, so why didn’t crime go down until the mid 1990s? Why should prison get credit for the crime drop of the past 10 years but the not the crime rise for the previous 20?

There is plenty of research on this matter. Granted, if we locked everybody up, we’d cut all crime outside of prison. But we’re locking up lots of people who aren’t or didn’t have to be hard-core criminals. The link between increased incarceration and lower crime isn’t clear. Even if it exists, it is inefficient.

Professor Cassell goes on: “it would be a mistake to think that we can release any significant number of prisoners without increasing crime rates. One out of every 100 adults is behind bars because one out of every 100 adults has committed a serious criminal offense.” I don’t like Professor Cassell’s attitude.

We will release virtually everybody in prison. The only question is when, and whether we'll refill up the beds as quickly as we empty them.

Economist Steven Levitt (Freakonomics), who promotes the idea that increased incarceration lowers crime, estimates that the increase in prison population since 1990 accounts for only about 1/3rd of the crime drop. I don’t know if it's worth it.

Given the money it takes to lock somebody up, about $24,000 a year per person (and much more in New York), couldn’t we do something better with this money to prevent crime? Like hire more cops and pay them better?

Others point out that economists' number-crunching based logic is flawed. Some people are pretty bad and best behind bars. But most criminal work doesn't disappear when somebody is locked up. Lock up a corner dealer and somebody else will fill the role. Locking up the “bad guys” won’t have any impact when all it does is create new “bad guys.” This is the drug market at work. While we can police our way out of the crime problem, we can’t arrest our way out of it.

The real factor is the war on drugs. Prison rates don’t (just) reflect crime and violence. They reflect our desire to incarcerate people.

Our prison rate was more or less steady from 1900 until the war on the drugs at 100 per 100,000 people. This is a little high compared to other nations like ours, but in the same ballpark. Now it’s over 700 per 100,000. It is shocking.

We’ve got more people behind bars than China. And they’ve got over four times the population. And we call them repressive. We’re so quick to see prison as the answer. We lock up people now we never would have locked up 35 years ago. Drunken drivers go to jail. My friend Bob just told me his neighbor got locked up for writing bad checks. She wouldn't have been locked up in 1970. And just think, for the money we pay to lock her up, all her debts could have been paid off. What do you think the people she owed money to would have wanted? Why are we so willing to spend money to punish people but not to right wrongs?

If one-in-a-hundred behind bars is so shocking, where is the shock for one-in-fifteen black men behind bars? And this doesn’t count the much larger figure of people on probation and parole. There are more black men in the criminal justice system today (jail, prison, probation, and parole) then there were black men enslaved in 1860.


Anonymous said...

PCM posts numerous comments that he can not have thought through. Who would pay off the debts for the bad checks he refers to, the taxpayers? What would this lead to? More fraud? It is easy to sit back and say that things are wrong and not offer any realistic solutions.

PCM said...

I'm not saying the government should simply pay the bill for everybody who writes bad checks. I'm smart enough (barely) to see the obvious problem with that.

I’m saying there is something absurd a system where we tax payers have to pay $24,000 a year because somebody else can't pay their debts. A better solution? Make her work. Sell her assets. Turn the debt over to a credit card company. Release her on the own recognizance before trial rather than pay to keep her in jail (I mean, we know she’s got no money to post bail and she owns a home).

Prison is not the answer and I don't want to pay for it.

Most people don’t see that there’s anything wrong with the status quo. They either don’t know or don’t care. Before meaningful solutions can be found, we first need to see we have a problem. A rising incarceration rate has put us in a big hole and first we need to stop digging. Maybe once the prison rate stops going up, we can figure out a way to return it to levels more in synch with the so-called civilized world.