Some thoughts on mass incarceration: why cost is not the issue

I have been thinking about the issue of mass incarceration. A common complaint by the left but also civil libertarian types is that America incarcerates too many people. Indeed, the incarceration rate in America has surged, starting at around the early to mid 80s with the war on drugs. An estimated 5% of all Americans will at some point in their lives be sent to a federal or state correctional or detention facility, which is a lot of people on an absolute basis. Prison sentences have also gotten longer too, in part due to mandatory sentencing guidelines and harsher punishments for recidivism.

I think efforts at criminal justice reform face major hurdles.

An article by Vox attributes about 25% of the post-90s decline in crime to mass incarceration, concluding that although incarceration works a little, it’s not enough to explain the entire recent drop in crime:

The bottom line: Some effect. Criminologists now tend to believe that incarceration accounts for a fraction of the drop in crime (say, 25 percent), but no more. A 2015 Brennan Center for Justice report estimates that incarceration played even less of a role than that, especially when it came to violent crime. The Brennan Center concluded that the rising incarceration rates through the 1980s had already locked up the truly violent criminals, and the point of diminishing returns was hit even before the crime rate started to fall.

Even if this is true, it’s one of those things that’s hard to accept, because it’s counterintuitive. Building more prisons and longer sentencing seems like the most logical way of stopping crime.

A common argument is that mass incarceration is a waste of money. You see this argument by the left a lot, such as citing figures that it costs $x/day to house an inmate. I suppose they are trying to appeal to fiscal conservatives. But this is likely not the real reason, because it’s incoherent.

If wastefulness is the only criterion for assessing the worthiness of policy, then there are way bigger targets than prison spending, which is tiny compared to the both overall federal and state budgets. The annual federal prison budget is just $8 billion, versus $1.2 trillion for healthcare. Medicare fraud and waste is way bigger than prison spending, so why isn’t the left up in arms about that? Because they like Medicare, and they see that the benefits outweigh the inevitable fraud and waste. Same for Social Security fraud and waste. Total federal student loan spending stands at $1.4 trillion

State correctional spending is more, totaling $57 billion as of 2020. About 7% of California’s annual budget, $16 billion for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, is spent annually on prisons. For smaller states, this is not an insignificant use of resources, so I think this is an argument for simply having the federal government, which has vastly more resources, subsidize state spending on prisons. But overall, the point still stands that prison spending is tiny relative to other forms of spending. If the goal is to eliminate wasteful spending, the last place you would start is the prison system.

It’s not like prisoners are being housed at the Ritz. Conditions suck and rations are meager, and prisoners have few amenities compared to prisons elsewhere in the world. Guards and other staff don’t get paid much either. The correctional/penal system is probably the only government program in which cost cutting and austerity is paramount, compared to, say, the department of education, in which inordinate resources are summoned on a per-capita basis so that test scores may go up a hundredth of a percent. Why would incarceration be more prohibitively expensive than, say, a fleet of aircraft carriers.

Studies show that it costs $30-50k/year to jail a criminal, which seems like a lot of money for something in which nothing is being produced or value created, but a thief can easily steal hundreds or thousands of dollars of merchandise in a single day, so the burden on society of letting these people steal is greater than the cost of locking them up. Even an amateur or recreational shoplifter can easily steal $100/day, which alone covers the annual cost of incarceration (If you’re only stealing $100/day as a career criminal, you need to just quit and get legit job, cause obviously you suck at crime.) Individuals who belong to shoplifting gangs can steal thousands of dollars of merchandise daily (this is per person) by hitting up all the big box stores in a county, which is 10-20x the annual per-person cost of incarceration.

So it’s evident that prisons offer a very high potential ROI indirectly, by preventing substantial financial loss, but also by preventing secondary deleterious effects of crime. Retail theft leads to unemployment, for example. Car break-ins and robberies lower social trust and reduce property values. People tend to look at ROI from the perspective of generating revenue, but preventing loss is equally important.

The Vox article also mentions that criminals ‘age out of crime’, hence justifying shorter sentences. I don’t really buy this. Others are skeptical too. It seems like one of those just-so stories. It’s hard to define or quantify how old someone must be to have presumably ‘aged out’. Does it occur in their 20s, 30s, etc.? Some sources say it’s 40s, which seem pretty high. At that point, you are old enough to just be a career criminal.

If you want to argue that prisons are dehumanizing or squander human potential/capital, that would be a more coherent argument, and probably closer to the real reason the left opposes mass incarceration, not because it’s wasteful, which is the pretend reason.

1 comment

  1. If all criminals were just executed like they did in some European countries, the populace’s genetic industrial potential would improve over time.
    The exact same benefit can be attained by preventing criminals from reproducing.

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