The great incarceration experiment of the 1980s has left the US with a prison population which far exceeds those in other advanced countries. Despite locking up one in every 50 working age men the US has not yet produced a low crime society. Richard Freeman outlines the costs of incarceration and suggests some alternativesby Richard Freeman / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Turn on the local radio and television news in virtually any city in the US. “Last night, a man was murdered/a woman robbed/drug dealers raided…”
Local radio and television news in the US consists largely of murder and crime: who shot or robbed or raped whom. It is sensational news, but not exaggerated sensationalism. It reflects the level of crime, and the failure of the great incarceration experiment (GIE)-the huge increase in the US prison population from the late 1970s.
Crime is not uniquely a US problem. Crime rates in the UK and western Europe are nothing to brag about. Between 1981-93 the number of offences in the UK grew by 86 per cent. Many non-violent crimes, such as auto thefts, are as frequent in the EU as in the US. It is only in violent crime, such as murder, that the US leads the pack. Though 1994-95 saw an encouraging decline in murder in the US, the rate of death by homicide still far exceeds that in other advanced countries.
What distinguishes the US is that the crime rate is high notwithstanding a prison population unimaginable elsewhere. The US has enjoyed a large increase in jobs over whatever year or period we look at. But the rate of growth of employment is dwarfed by the increase in incarcerations. Viewed as a job, being a prisoner is one of the fastest growing in the US, closely followed by working as a private or state security officer. Between 1977-93 the population in prison or in jail (for shorter term sentences) tripled.
Over the same period, employment in the criminal justice system increased much more rapidly than total employment. The number of people working in criminal justice was 1.7m full-time equivalents, or around 2 per cent of US full-time equivalent employment. An additional 0.6 per cent of employees worked as private guards. If we want to judge the effects on society of locking up the bad guys, the US provides an ideal “natural experiment” over this period.
Numbers to Curl Your Hair
Some social developments are best understood by means of an anecdote or personal story. Others are best represented by statistics. The GIE-the attempt to control crime through arrest and imprisonment-is best understood by statistics. The numbers are so striking that each time I examine them, I think: “There has to be an error, a decimal point misplaced, perhaps.” But…