Prison stats make another new record

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I saw this from the New York Times yesterday. Originally I wanted to put up a post that asked the following question: For how long will America continue to set new records in the realm of incarceration and punishment trends without a serious call for social change? These record breaking new descriptions of the current prison crises come out year after year. Every year we break new boundaries and every year we exceed everywhere else. How long can this go on? I don't think there's a good answer for this question so I was hesitant to put up this post.

In the meantime I noticed Jeremy (via facebook) and Brian seem interested in the topic so I thought I'd comment on one point that Brian makes:

This understates the cost of prison because it does not factor into what the prisoners could add to the economy if they were gainfully employed. The actual costs to society are significantly higher than what is spent on prison.

While I think Brian's intuition is right - the costs of prison are understated - I'm skeptical that this argument holds ground in the current debate. The traditional response to this claim is what's called "the incapacitation effect." In other words, if the costs of prisons are understated because those individuals would otherwise be productive in the economy, then the opposite may also be true. Inmates would be committing more crimes were they not incarcerated, thus the benefits of prisons may also be understated. At this point its an empirical question of one unknown counter factual scenario against another. The little available evidence that we do have often points to the fact that current inmates are better characterized as career criminals than they are one time offenders. Researchers are more likely to believe that the benefits of incapacitation are more understated (because of incapactiation) than the costs of a smaller labor pool are understated.

On net I still agree with the broader claim that the costs of prisons are understated but not because of the reasons above. Instead I think the greatest cost to prison is the debilitating effects that social provision of criminal justice has upon innovation and entrepreneurship in criminal justice.

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This page contains a single entry by Dan published on February 29, 2008 1:35 PM.

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