Prison Math

What are the costs and benefits of leading the world in locking up human beings?

In 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 1,524,513 prisoners in state and federal prisons. When local jails are included, the total climbs to 2,284,913. These numbers are not just staggering; they are far above those of any other liberal democracy in both absolute and per capita terms. The International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London calculates that the United States has an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 people, compared to 325 in Israel, 217 in Poland, 154 in England and Wales, 96 in France, 71 in Denmark, and 32 in India.

America’s enormously high incarceration rate is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to a 2010 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), U.S. incarceration rates between 1880 and 1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 prisoners per 100,000 people. After 1980, however, the inmate population began to grow much more rapidly than the overall population, climbing from about 220 per 100,000 in 1980 to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.

Why are American incarceration rates so high by international standards, and why have they increased so much during the last three decades? The simplest explanation would be that the rise in the incarceration rate reflects a commensurate rise in crime. But according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the total number of violent crimes was only about 3 percent higher in 2008 than it was in 1980, while the violent crime rate was much lower: 19 per 1,000 people in 2008 vs. 49.4 in 1980. Meanwhile, the BJS data shows that the total number of property crimes dropped to 134.7 per 1,000 people in 2008 from 496.1 in 1980. The growth in the prison population mainly reflects changes in the correctional policies that determine who goes to prison and for how long. 

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s played an important role. According to the CEPR study, nonviolent offenders make up more than 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Nonviolent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all inmates, up from less than 10 percent in 1980. Much of this increase can be traced back to the “three strikes” bills adopted by many states in the 1990s. The laws require state courts to hand down mandatory and extended periods of incarceration to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or more separate occasions. The felonies can include relatively minor crimes such as shoplifting. 

What have longer prison sentences accomplished? Research by the Pew Center on the States suggests that expanded incarceration accounts for about 25 percent of the drop in violent crime that began in the mid-1990s—leaving the other 75 percent to be explained by things that have nothing to do with keeping people locked up.

As for the costs, state correctional spending has quadrupled in nominal terms in the last two decades and now totals $52 billion a year, consuming one out of 14 general fund dollars. Spending on corrections is the second fastest growth area of state budgets, following Medicaid. According to a 2009 report from the Pew Center on the States, keeping an inmate locked up costs an average of $78.95 per day, more than 20 times the cost of a day on probation.

More important is the long-term impact that the tough-on-crime policies of the last two decades have had on prisoners and society. Housing nonviolent, victimless offenders with violent criminals for years on end can’t possibly help them reintegrate into society, which helps explain why four out of 10 released prisoners end up back in jail within three years of their release.

As the Harvard sociologist Bruce Western and the University of Washington sociologist Becky Pettit showed in a 2010 study published by the Pew Center on the States, incarceration has a lasting impact on men’s earnings. Taking age, education, school enrollment, and geography into account, they found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11 percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks, and reduced yearly earnings by 40 percent. Only 2 percent of previously incarcerated men who started in the bottom fifth of the earnings distribution made it to the top fifth 20 years later, compared to 15 percent of never-incarcerated men who started at the bottom. 

It isn’t just offenders whose lives are damaged. Western and Pettit note that 54 percent of inmates are parents with minor children, including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. One in every 28 children has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

While we don’t yet have data on the income mobility of these children, Rucker C. Johnson of the Goldman School of Public Policy found in 2009 that children whose fathers have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than their peers to be expelled or suspended from school (23 percent compared to 4 percent). Johnson found that family income, averaged over the years a father is incarcerated, is 22 percent lower than family income the year before his incarceration. Even in the year after the father is released, family income remains 15 percent lower than it was the year before incarceration. Both education and parental income are strong indicators of a child’s future economic mobility. 

Attempts to estimate the costs and benefits of prison have proved difficult and controversial. In 1987, for example, the National Institute of Justice economist Edwin Zedlewski used national crime data to calculate that the typical offender commits 187 crimes a year and that the typical crime exacts $2,300 in property losses or in physical injuries and human suffering. Multiplying these two figures, Zedlewski estimated that the typical imprisoned felon is responsible for $430,000 in “social costs” each year he is free. Dividing that figure by an annual incarceration cost of $25,000, he concluded that the public benefits of imprisonment outweigh the costs by 17 to 1.

Zedlewski’s findings have been debunked many times. A severe rebuttal came from the Boalt Hall Law School penologists Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, who argued in a 1988 article published by the National Council of Crime and Delinquency that Zedlewski overstated the net benefit of incarceration by inflating the numerator (crimes per offender and social costs per crime) and deflating the denominator (annual cost of confinement). They cited several studies to bolster their charge, including one indicating that the typical offender commits 15 (as opposed to 187) crimes in a year. According to a 1991 Brookings paper by John J. DiIulio and Anne Morrison Piehl, making this one adjustment to the calculations reduces the benefit/cost ratio to 1.38. In other words, the benefit of incarceration is probably small, especially compared to the high cost of locking people up. Also note that Zedlewski assumed imprisoned offenders were predatory criminals, although a substantial share of real-world convicts are guilty only of victimless crimes.

Fortunately, economists are getting better at understanding how to keep people out of jail. In a 2007 paper for Economic Inquiry, for instance, the U.C.–Santa Barbara economist Jeff Grogger found there are large deterrent effects from increased certainty of punishment and much smaller, generally insignificant effects from increased severity. Such findings call into question the economic rationality of increasingly long prison terms. Who knows how many more millions will be locked up by the time public policy finally catches up with economics? 

Contributing Editor Veronique de Rugy (vderugy@gmu.edu) is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. She writes a monthly economics column for reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Wait. So as the prison population was going up, the rate of violent and property crimes was going down?

  • ||

    yes. and of course causation =/= correlation

    some claim one of the reasons WHY it was going down was stricter incarceration policy.

    others say not the case.

  • ||

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who notice however that ask the questions are the crime rates in the other countries we are being compared to going up or down? then we can start comparing.

  • ||

    we can only be comparing if they had a similar CHANGE in their rates and of course if our cultures were comparable, which in many cases - they aren't

    this is what gun control advocates do - they claim that since country X has gun control and low violent crime and we have far more guns/less gun control and much higher violent crime, that therefore guns cause crime

    which is of course specious. we need to be very careful when comparing stuff like crime which has such a massive cultural basis, not to mention demographic

  • ||

    The interesting thing is that compared to most of these other countries the US has lower crime rates (although some US states, and certainly cities, do have higher rates).

    The main difference is that in the US violent attacks result in the death of the victim more frequently, but overall England, Canada and Australia (all considered havens by gun control advocates) have higher rates of violent crime. And considerably higher rates of property crime like car theft and burglary.

    Rape is an exception, but it has been suggested that the skew is due to rape being reported more in the US because victims get more sympathetic treatment than they do elsewhere.

  • ||

    yes, and i am aware of that. england for example has a significantly higher crime rate. and specifically in regards to the dynamics of their crime, the average "innocent bystander" is far more likely ot be victimized by crime in the UK vs. the US. same bystander also has significantly fewer rights in regards to defending himself against said criminals

  • ||

    True apparently one woman was charge with inciting more violence when she used a knife in her own home to protect herself from an intruder. Another tid-bit since guns are outlawed England had to create a Knife czar due to the increase of violence from knives since the criminals know they don't need a gun since nobody has any

  • Michael Ejercito||

    True apparently one woman was charge with inciting more violence when she used a knife in her own home to protect herself from an intruder.


    Who was this woman?

  • Realist||

    You mean racial...just say it!

  • Realist||

    And what is the racial make-up of those countries?

  • MWG||

    If you think the lower crime rates are justification for the current incarceration rates you'd be wrong.

    http://reason.com/blog/2010/06.....k-your-hea

  • ola||

    Interesting, and also that one particular chart only goes back to 1960. In other literature I've seen regarding murder, it peaked around 1930 and dropped steadily until mid 1960's or 1970 than began shooting up. And as can be seen in one of those charts the incarceration rate was pretty much constant for that same period of time. This reminds me of the global warming debate when everybody gets to pick the beginning date on the chart to support their conclusion.

  • Ramsey||

    And there was prohibition when it peaked, and the war on drugs when it started climbing in the 70s. Crazy, huh?

  • ||

    and a host of other factors were different, which makes such facile comparisons specious.

  • L4F||

    Well duh, it's pretty hard for locked up criminals to commit crimes.
    http://libertarians4freedom.blogspot.com/

  • Federal Dog||

    GET THOSE STUDENT LOAN DEFAULTERS!!

  • Some Call Me. . .Tim||

    USA! USA! USA!

  • WTF||

    We're number one!

  • KPres||

    It's not necessarily a bad thing, you know. Many of these countries have low incarceration rates because they don't investigate any crimes. I know in Sweeden, for instance, they have an insanely high percentage of unsolved murders.

  • ||

    i wouldn't be surprised in a country like sweden with a relatively high suicide rate, that (at least a smart murderer) could also avoid detection of their crime in the first place by being reasonably proficient at making it look like a suicide.

    i have heard btw (not able to confirm this) that japan actually classifies as :"suicide" when a murder suicide occurs. iow, husband kills wife, then self. that counts as two suicides. that is ENTIRELY unconfirmed, and i'd love to know if it's true

  • ||

    An "insanely high percentage" of a small number is still a small number.

    But still, there's something to that.

    A more telling case is the very low rate of rape prosecutions in England. There are documented cases of women identifying the attacker by name and the police taking no action.

  • ||

    well , yes. but the #'s are still magnified by the severity of the crime

    iow, murder is a very rare crime (compared to yer average pedestrian auto theft), but a clearance rate of 80% vs. 90% for murder is not a small difference because it means a bunch of murderers never get charged.

    and of course, it's important in our system (at least in theory) that it's more important that a guilty man not get convicted than an innocent man gets falsely convicted.

  • ||

    Sweden's murder rate is so small (per capita, per 100,00, per anything), who cares about if they are solved or not, it would barely add to any statistical argument. Also, their suicide rate is average.

    I know people like to pick apart Scandinavian countries because of their government tax system, and try to find faults - no Country is perfect and they do grumble too, but they are always on the top of the standard of living. Being Swedish and having visited there, i would say that there is some interest in the American justice system. There is some indiference to crime, becaus ethe majority of it is non-violent small robbery. They envy the idea of individual freedoms and living as a modern Cowboy, however, the consenus is that the majority of the US is a dirty dispicable place that redeems itself with brief displays of art and culture.

  • ||

    generally speaking, friends/relatives of the victim and society at large "care" when homicides aren't solved

    hth

  • OO||

    lock-up all 17-24yr old black males since there's no inner-city jobs anyway...or draft 'em & let the DI man em up.

  • ||

    clearly, the prison industrial complex is sexist. they lock up far more men than women!!

  • Rahm Emanuel||

    You're fucking retarded.

  • OO||

    got a prob w proactive law enforcement? wait right there & all will be explained

  • ||

    That's only if we finally decide to educate them. I'm a manager in Little Rock, AR and a diploma is as useless as the paper it's written on if it's from any school in the county.
    The only problem is how wonderfully desegregation has worked. Look up Cabot, AR. A predominate section on "white flight" will be there. If you're a global warmer you'd be begging for some segregation in LR public schools.
    It's a sad state really...vouchers and scholarships need to be offered for kids to get a true way out on their own but as long as the Dems control things that won't happen.

  • pmains||

    So, OT, but whatever happened to Old Mexican? Are we sticking with the "Seal Team 6 took him out in Abottobad" explanation?

  • WTF||

    OM posted a while back that he was going to be tied up with extra work responsibilites and would not be around much to comment.

  • Pip||

    "the United States has an incarceration rate of 743 per 100,000 people, compared to 325 in Israel, 217 in Poland, 154 in England and Wales, 96 in France, 71 in Denmark, and 32 in India."

    China? North Korea? Cuba?

  • OO||

    u mean somalia?

  • oo||

    ROADZ!!111!!! HERP DERP!!

  • L4F||

    We have more illegal aliens than those countries, what did you expect?

  • ||

    [citation required]

  • MrGuy||

    Good luck finding an accurate number.

  • ||

    From TFA:

    These numbers are not just staggering; they are far above those of any other liberal democracy in both absolute and per capita terms.


    I don't think that even the most flaming liberal has ever suggested that China, North Korea or Cuba are liberal democracies.

  • Tom Friedman||

    Wait, what?

  • ||

    Statistically, there are no prisoners in any of those countries. Just students learning the error of their ways.

  • MWG||

    Not sure about China and NK. I don't think anyone has reliable numbers, but according to a past post by Reason

    Cuba = 531
    Russia = 629
    Belarus =385

    http://reason.com/blog/2010/06.....tcontainer

    Regardless, saying "hey, at least we're not as bad as China or North Korea" is hardly a vindication of the US incarceration rates.

  • WTF||

    Regardless, saying "hey, at least we're not as bad as China or North Korea" is hardly a vindication of the US incarceration rates.
    Although apparently we appear to be worse, if you want to believe those statistics.

  • MWG||

    Based off the little I know about North Korea, I'm guessing they'd be worse... but that shouldn't stop us from trying, right?

  • WTF||

    We can achieve anything if we put our minds to it!

  • MWG||

    USA! USA! USA!

  • ||

    100% of people in NK are incarcerated.

  • KPres||

    Santa Barbara economist Jeff Grogger found there are large deterrent effects from increased certainty of punishment and much smaller, generally insignificant effects from increased severity.

    This is a hell of a statement. You're telling me, if I'm contemplating killing somebody, that the difference between a 5-year sentence and a life sentence isn't a deterrent?

    I call BS.

    Also, the first part of that statement scares the hell out of me, because I know that if the way to reduce crime is by increasing the certainty of being caught, the government is going to see that as a green-light for increased surveillance. Aka, Big Brother will be watching your every move.

  • Otto||

    No, the statement declares that there is a large difference in deterrence between probation and a guaranteed three year prison term, versus a guaranteed 3 year term versus a guaranteed 15 year term.

  • ||

    actually, rightly or wrongly this has been a core tenet of criminology for decades.

    you are of course misstating the argument, but it basically comes down to game theory and how people perceive risk/reward etc.

    i have been very successful in both poker and futures trading by using these same principles - iow understanding how people miscalculate risk/reward.

    if a guy gets behind the wheel drunk and realizes he could get 5k of fines and a week in jail for dui but thinks he only has a 1/1000 chance of getting caught - he will risk it

    if he could get 2.5 k of fines and 3 days in jail but has a 1/20 chance of getting caught (perceived risk) he is way less likely to risk it

    granted, impaired people don't assess risk particularly well, but you get my point.

    even if the perceived punishment is very draconian, if the perceived risk of getting caught is low enough, it has low deterrent value

  • KPres||

    Well, in your second scenario, you only cut the penalty in half, but increased the chance of getting caught 50 times over.

    Of course that would be more effective.

    But what if you cut the penalty in half but only doubled the chance of getting caught?

    I think that would be a more reasonable comparison.

  • ||

    yes, that is a very fair argument. i think the point is valid, but it was a very poor example i gave.

    the point is that if a person thinks "i can get away with this" , it becomes almost irrelevant WHAT the punishment would be.

    if they think there is a reasonable chance of getting caught, a much lower punishment becomes so effective as to have a higher deterrent effect than the prior example.

    as a tangent, there is the issue of sunk costs and risks (i used this when working undercover). once a person has made the leap to commit the crime, they will often ignore evidence that they might get caught, because it causes cognitive dissonance and it is safer (emotionally) for them to ignore that stuff when they have little power to avoid the apprehension.

  • KPres||

    Well, in general my position is we're two soft on 'real' crimes and too harsh on petty crimes.

  • ||

    i think it varies way too much state by state, and even county by county to make such statements

  • KPres||

    actually, rightly or wrongly this has been a core tenet of criminology for decades.

    Do these 'decades' correlate with the increase in incarceration rates?

    That would be interesting.

  • ||

    based on my (admittedly limited knowledge)- yes.

    again, correlation =/= causation, but it is inarguable that we have benefited from a MASSIVE drop in crime over the last few decades.

    heck, i can hear the difference on my police radio. way less burg's, auto thefts etc. than we used to get just 15 yrs ago.

    i would argue that a combination of education, and proactive DUI enforcement specifically has saved literally 10's of thousands of lives over the last few decades. it is no longer nearly as socially acceptable to drive DUI, and the average person is far more cognizant of the risks and perceives them as greater in terms of getting caught.

    i will also say that there is NO other crime on earth where the actual innocent have greater protection against being falsely convicted. even if you don't believe in the breathalyzer, every dui arrest in my state has the absolute right to be transported to a medical facility for a test of their blood as well.

    any crime where we can protect against false arrest and especially conviction so robustly while also vastly improving our ability to detect and convict the offenders is a win/win.

    and as a deterrent factor, if people can decide not to drive DUI in the first place because they are afraid of getting caught, that's the ultimate win. way better to deter crime, than to investigate inchoate offenses (let alone after the fact) and prosecute them

  • ||

    "but it is inarguable that we have benefited from a MASSIVE drop in crime over the last few decades."

    Yet we continue to hire more and more cops and flush more and more money down this toilet.

    Unless you have violated the rights of another, no crime has taken place, making criminal courts unnecessary, and every thing can be handled in civil courts.

    Yes, even DUI, once you start making laws focused on preventing an occurrence, there is no logical stopping point until you have micromanaged every aspect of peoples' lives.

  • ||

    except (1) there are significantly less cops not more (iow you are wrong) per capita since the recession started. numerous agencies have made high visibility layoffs, etc. even in some of the worst crime areas of the country (oakland, newark, etc.)

    apart from the WOD, which toilet are you referring to. correlation =/= causation, but if more cops and harsher penalties were concurrent with massively dropping crime rates, you might at least consider that correlation has some sort of causality, nu? and not the opposite?

    as for the dui, i have no fucking idea what you are talking about.

    people should be free to get as drunk as they want. my state doesn't even have public intoxication laws. that's good.

    but the state has gotten much more proactive in DUI enforcement and that has undeniably made the roads FAR safer.

    and again, it's the only crime i am aware of where the innocent have almost 100% foolproof protection - at least in my state.

  • L4F||

    Once again REASON bitches about the costs of prisons but won't propose any realistic alternatives, which is troubling since libertarians are supposed to be REALISTIC and PRACTICAL, like John Stossel.

    So, perhaps REASON should propose a libertarian prison run by a private corporation with a profit incentive.

    Think you can do it better than the state? Prove it.

    Because frankly, I'm quite happy with Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Love those pink uniforms, feeding the scum two sandwiches a day, making them sleep in tents. That's a wonderful approach.

    http://libertarians4freedom.blogspot.com/

  • MWG||

    Uh... ending the WOD might be a start... but keep posting. You wouldn't want anyone to ever accuse you of thinking critically, right Gregoooo?

  • ||

    Hey, he thinks Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a libertarian.

    That even richer than Donderoooooooooooooooooooooooooo and Rudy 9/11anni.

  • ||

    Good luck arguing with the authoritarian neocon who goes by the name of 'Grego The Libertarian'

  • ||

    Arpaio is a corrupt grafting shitbag. I blame his continued reelection around here to the old senile vote.

  • KPres||

    So what does the US rate become if you take out all the victimless crime?

  • MWG||

    According to a study Reason posted on last year, 60% of the prison population is incarcerated for 'non-violent' crime.

    Here's a link to the original study.

    http://www.cepr.net/index.php/.....rceration/

  • KPres||

    Still unanswered, though, since I'm not sure that non-violent = victimless.

  • MWG||

    True, but I think it's the best answer you'll get as the answer your looking for is probably too complicated to find.

    A drug dealer that kills someone in a deal gone bad has committed murder as a result of participating in what should be a legal transaction.

    IOW, legalizing victimless crimes could potentially work wonders on violent crime as both are tied together.

  • ||

    but that's a prospective policy question, not an issue of victimless crime

    although many cops, prosecutors and defense attorneys have a term for when one drug dealer kills another : misdemeanor homicide

  • ||

    yes. all you have to do is see the immense heartache that a lower middle class family suffers when some asshole breaks in and steals the christmas presents they busted their ass to sacrifice for so their two kids could get bicycles for christmas.

    non-violent crime =/= non-serious crime

    as a libertarian, i argue that victimless crimes generally should not be crimes (although i disagree with those who think DUI etc. is "victimless" unless and until somebody gets hurt, but that's another argument).

    thieves cause some of the most awful consequences of any type of criminal, and ime often across a much broader swath of persons.

  • WTF||

    Except 'non-violent' does not mean 'victimless'. Fraud is non-violent.

  • MWG||

    True (see my response to KPers).

    OTOH, there are other ways of punishing fraud and other non-violent crimes besides locking the perps up.

  • KPres||

    Another point to be made is that I'm willing to bet a prison sentence can turn many a non-violent criminal into a violent criminal. Maybe if you don't lock up the petty coke dealer you don't end up with a car thief.

  • ||

    Once again REASON bitches about the costs of prisons but won't propose any realistic alternatives...



    Writers in Reason have proposed the most realistic of alternatives on many occasions.

    DON'T LOCK PEOPLE UP FOR VICTIMLESS CRIMES.

  • ||

    a comprehensive answer with defined boundaries would suite your argument much better, instead of proposing to abolish all 'retarded' laws that you might happen to disagree with.

    critical analysis on Reason continues to plummet down the toilet

  • ||

    This is a hell of a statement. You're telling me, if I'm contemplating killing somebody, that the difference between a 5-year sentence and a life sentence isn't a deterrent?

    It's not the question of "the difference between a 5-year sentence and a life sentence" that is in play here, it's the difference between getting away with it and not getting away with it. This was raised by dunphy above.

    And yes, there is reason to fear that "the government is going to see that as a green-light for increased surveillance. Aka, Big Brother will be watching your every move."

    But that will be because governments will take the easy way out. IIANM, the researchers who have come to this conclusion believe that while increased patrolling and agressive investigations* are effective in catching crooks draconian surveillance is generally counterperoductive.

    Having officers who know who lives in a neighborhood and is in touch with the people and having investigators who know how to sniff out the dirt is hard, putting up cameras is easy.

    *This can be carried too far, of course. "Rounding up the usual suspects" for questioning can be effective (petty punks often know what's going on and will give out a certain amount of info to get the heat off themselves) but can also be carried too far.

  • ||

    "The simplest explanation would be that the rise in the incarceration rate reflects a commensurate rise in crime retarded laws"

    Don't let that happen again.

  • Christians Louboutins||

    good

  • ||

    Hmm...incarceration increased (tripled) even though crime is going down, she says.

    Doesn't that mean that incarcerating criminals keeps them from commiting crime, so that is why crime rates are lower?

    In Chicago the murder crime rate is at its lowest rate in 45 years. Keep locking the criminals up. Built more prisons, hire more cops and security guards.

  • Pandora UK||

    Doesn't that mean that incarcerating criminals keeps them from commiting crime, so that is why crime rates are lower?

  • ||

    legalizing or ignoring criminal behavior will do nothing to lower rates of said behavior.

  • nike air force 1||

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  • قبلة الوداع||

    thank u

  • goallen||

    I am an aspiring architect and I am appalled

  • Convert DTS to AC3||

    Thank you.

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