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
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 there is no mistake. Two per cent of the US male workforce are locked up. The table (page 73) provides some more numbers to curl your hair. As the figures show, prisons in the US are not filled with Mike Milkens or Nick Leesons, but rather with Mike Tysons. Prisons have become the domicile for “underclass” men. If you don’t have much education or earning power, you will find crime more attractive than work or unemployment, and you are increasingly likely to commit a crime. But police clearance rates have gone up, and more and more arrested criminals are convicted and jailed. Welcome, Mr Underclass, to prison: your cell number is… The decimal place difference The numbers incarcerated or under supervision in the criminal justice system in the US are a decimal place beyond comparable statistics in other advanced countries. In the UK, which has one of the highest rates of incarceration in western Europe, some 50,000 men were in prison in 1993, 0.3 per cent of the number in the work force. The 1992 incarceration rate for the US was many times that for western European countries, which themselves vary considerably (see table left). The US decimal point difference occurred before the adoption of the “three strikes and you’re out” policy, which promises long prison sentences for persons convicted of three crimes. At recent rates of growth of imprisonment-about 7 per cent per year-the US will double its imprisoned population in roughly ten years, producing the incredible likelihood that by 2005 one out of every 25 men in the labour force will be locked up. In western Europe, what is comparable to the US prison population are men who are long term unemployed. In 1992 in Europe’s largest economy, Germany, approximately 2 per cent of the male workforce were unemployed for over one year . In the UK the figure was 5.1 per cent. In France, it was 2.6 per cent. Europe’s unemployed are also, disproportionately, young, unskilled men. The decimal point difference between the US and Europe reflects two different ways of dealing with the decline in demand for low skilled male labour which has characterised western economies in the past two decades. In the US there are few benefits for unemployed or poor men; real pay for low skill workers has fallen by 20 per cent or so; jobs are scarce even at low wages; and society deals with these lost souls through the criminal justice system. In most EU countries there are substantial unemployment or social safety net benefits, and wages have not fallen, so that it pays to wait for a job. The incarceration non-cure The GIE began in the late Carter years, pushed on in the Reagan-Bush era, and culminated with the 1990s “three strikes and you’re out” legislation. As a crime control effort, locking the bad guys up has two virtues. It incapacitates known criminals: if you are locked up, you are not able to mug, rob or otherwise harm decent citizens. Many Americans expected incapacitation to reduce the crime rate greatly. If 2 per cent of men have criminal tendencies and they are locked up, crime should decline significantly. Incarceration also has a deterrence effect: a rational potential criminal should be deterred by the realisation that he will eventually get caught and end up in jail or prison. It is possible that the recent decline in murder is the result of GIE-promoted deterrence. But it seems to have had little effect on other crimes. The problem is that the two crime-reducing effects of the GIE-incapacitation of criminals and deterrence-have been offset by other forces which make the incarceration cure at best a palliative rather than a long term solution to the problem of finding a social role for less skilled men. The first offset is economic incentive. As best we can tell from imperfect data, crime pays for unskilled young men. You can make more money selling drugs, mugging, or robbing than you can at a low paid short term job in some hamburger joint. Arrest Joe the drug dealer and you not only remove him from the streets, you create an opportunity for Joe’s brother or neighbour to move into the business. Lock up Harry the mugger and he won’t be able to snatch someone’s purse. But if it was lucrative for him, it is probably lucrative for his buddy. Removing one person from crime simply induces another person to take advantage of the opportunity. The second offset is the effect of prisons on prisoners. Prisons do not rehabilitate criminals. When prisoners complete their sentences, most do not return to society rehabilitated, to enter the job market. Young men who have been incarcerated have poor employment records years later. Many offenders sentenced to prison return to society with their labour market skills and opportunities reduced and their criminal skills and opportunities enhanced. Prisoners have high recidivism rates. About 70 per cent of US prisoners engage in crime after release; the UK figures are not much better. The third offset is the stigma attached to prison. When few people go to prison, it carries a tremendous stigma, with a big deterrent effect. When half of a community’s young men are incarcerated at some point, as in some American slums, it’s just another rite of passage. A nasty rite. One to be avoided if you can. But nothing special. Something comparable to the old draft. You put in your time as part of normal life. “Where you been, man?” “The pen.” “Tough. What do you think about the Raiders this year?” Costs of the GIE In 1995 California issued a report that high-lighted one of the great problems of the GIE. It costs bundles of money to find criminals; to process and convict them in the criminal justice system; and to keep them in prison. The report stated that for the first time in its history, California, with the finest state-funded college and university system in the US, spent more on prisons than on higher education. Spending on prisons had risen from 2 per cent of the state budget in 1980 to 9.9 per cent in 1995, whereas spending on higher education shrank from 12.6 per cent in 1980 to 9.5 per cent. The number of inmates increased from 23,500 to 126,100 over the period and 17 new prisons were built. This was before the state’s “three strikes and you’re out” law took effect. Total expenditures on the US criminal justice system are in the order of 1.3 per cent of GDP. In 1990 the average cost of a prisoner was $22,000: for that money you can go to a fine private university. Doubling the incarcerated population will bring criminal justice expenditures to nearly 3 per cent of GDP. State governors and legislators will have to raise taxes or cut back on higher education or other services to pay for the GIE. Just as a runaway welfare state budget is unsustainable over the long run, so too is a runaway criminal justice system budget. But public expenditures are not the sole social cost of efforts to limit crime. Both households and businesses undertake considerable crime prevention measures. I reckon that about 0.6 per cent of GDP is spent on private crime prevention, from guards to various protective devices. Finally there are the costs of crime that accrue to criminals and their families. There is loss of production. Prisoners are low skill workers, and many would be jobless if they were free but not committing crimes. Still, 2 per cent of even low skill male workers, in work, would add perhaps 0.5 to 0.7 per cent to GDP. More serious is the effect of parental crime and incarceration on children. Many single parent families are single parent because the father is incarcerated: in 1991 some 60 per cent of male prisoners and most female prisoners were parents. Perhaps as many as one in three single parent families on the Aid to Families with Dependent Children programme (AFDC) had the father in jail or prison, making it impossible to enforce policies designed to get “dead-beat dads” to pay for their families. Having a parent involved in crime is also likely to increase the probability of a child choosing crime: whatever the reason, crime runs in families. That private and public criminal justice costs are high does not mean that these expenses are unjustified. Crime creates misery for many; and expenditure that reduces crime even modestly may improve social well-being by more than the expense. Once someone has committed a serious crime, what is society to do but catch and imprison or otherwise place the villain under the criminal justice system? Let me be perfectly clear. Like most other citizens, I want the creep who robs me, mugs my neighbour, sells drugs to 12 year olds-not to mention shooting someone-punished and punished severely. I have no sympathy for bad guys. When then-candidate Clinton rushed back to Arkansas in 1992 to refuse to pardon a convicted criminal from the death penalty; when future-candidate Tony Blair denounced the Tories as weak on crime in 1995, and Michael Howard snarled “it ain’t so,” they were taking popular stands. Only soft-hearted lefties (an extinct species in the US-an endangered one in the UK) think otherwise. But the GIE shows that this is not a long term solution to the incentives for crime that unemployment, increasing income inequality, and the chances to make big bucks in the drug trade give less skilled young men. Locking the bad guys up is a short-run palliative. The long term solution must be to reduce the number who commit crimes. Reducing the number of bad guys One proposal which has the support of some conservatives in the US is for early intervention with religious and moral teachings: the aim is to convince the 5-8 year old that if he gets involved in crime, hell or prison awaits him. This strikes me as unrealistic. Youth workers in inner city areas say the problem about convincing youths to behave is that they cannot promise a decent payoff in terms of work and living conditions. If crime pays, all the preaching in the world is unlikely to persuade you to choose unemployment or minimum wage work over crime. Another proposal is to increase the police presence. Many believe that additional community policing lies behind the fall in the murder rate in big US cities last year. There is no hard data on this yet but New York City, where the crime reduction has been most noticeable, has been widely praised for its effort to put more police on the streets. Studies of the effect of police on crime rates suggest that more police is indeed an effective crime prevention strategy. The most radical proposal is to find productive, decently paid jobs for the less skilled young men whose economic value to society has declined. In a different era, such men went down coal mines, worked as longshoremen, in steel or automobile factories, or served as foot soldiers. If I could promise the young men in the worst American slum that if they stayed out of trouble General Motors, US Steel, or any other such traditional good employer of blue collar labour would give them permanent jobs, I am convinced that the ethos of the neighbourhood would quickly change. If the US were to spend huge sums training or subsidising their employment-up to 2 per cent of GDP or $27,000 for each of the 5m men incarcerated, probated or paroled-it would improve social well-being considerably. There is great potential for old-fashioned social intervention in the job market to reduce the supply of bad guys. The problem is that most interventions tried so far have not been all that successful; while European- style welfare may keep many from crime, it has its own undesirable effects on behaviour and public finances. Long term solutions do not come cheap. But neither do short term palliatives like the GIE.