Thursday, April 22, 2010

The High Cost of Incarceration

Albeit from Canada, a recent editorial in The Globe and Mail by Conservative activist Tom Flanagan illustrates some of the folly that leads to an over-investment (i.e., a waste of money) in prisons. The present is compared to the past in an overtly sentimentalized fashion:
I’m not delighted about getting older, but it does have the advantage of conferring a longer memory. I can remember what it was like to be a boy in the 1950s, when crime was virtually unknown in the lives of ordinary people. My father drove all over the county in his work but never locked his car. We didn’t lock our house unless we went away overnight. I could ride my bike downtown to the Saturday-afternoon movie and leave it unlocked on the curbside. I never saw a bike lock until the 1970s.
A couple of movies ago, Michael Moore chose to depict Canada as a place where people still leave their doors unlocked, but simply put it's really not something that people do any more in any developed society. What has changed since the 1950's? Population density, mobility, income disparity.... Sad to say, yes, the world has changed - but not in ways that most people want to undo. Wistful nostalgia is great, but there's no indication that increasing the prison population will allow anybody to go back to the days of unlocked homes, cars and bicycles (to the extent that those times actually existed).
The explosion of crime has changed all that. Today, we lock up our bicycles, cars and houses. Parents are afraid to let their children walk to school or play in the park alone. I can’t even imagine what my childhood would have been like if we had been so obsessed with security.
To a significant degree we're talking odds and perceptions. There's a perception that your house is more likely to be burgled if you don't lock the door, so you lock the door. But remember that day you forgot to lock the door and didn't get burgled? The odds are nobody's going to be checking the knob - although if a would-be burglar is checking door knobs on your street (or trying car door handles), your door is unlocked, and all of your neighbors locked their doors, the odds of your house (or car) being hit go way up. And remember that day the neighbor's house was burgled, with somebody breaking a window or jimmying a lock to gain access? Some good the lock did.

When I was a kid, well after Tom's childhood days, we were still able to go to the park alone or with friends, walk to and from school, and engage in a lot of unsupervised activities even as young children. A big part of that was that our friends were doing the same thing - there were kids everywhere. Some of those kids had parents, older siblings or babysitters around, so there were older, more responsible eyes watching the activity. As we've moved our activities indoors, and have restricted kids from unsupervised activities, the odds have again changed. It's not unusual to drive by parks in my town and not see a single person there, or to see one or two families present. If a child goes there alone, the odds are that the child will spend some time with no other adult or child present. That significantly changes the risk to a child.

But again, none of this has anything to do with the incarceration rate. There's no reason to believe that if we incarcerate every known criminal for life, children will once again frolic unsupervised in the park. Given the perception of danger on every corner, we're unlikely to regain the public confidence necessary to restore the population of kids and parents in public places that renders them safe. It's not just the overblown "stranger danger" - when a child falls off a swing in an empty park, who's there to help?

The author argues that aside from the homicide rate, something he associates with ethnic minorities, the crime rate in Canada is not much different from that in the U.S. Me? I'm a murder capital kind of guy, I guess, having moved from Saskatoon (2007) to the Detroit (2001, 2008) area (no, those aren't the only years they won). In fact, my welcome to Saskatoon back in the 1970's was a murder across the hall at our hotel. But I digress. If the argument is that we should send murderers to prison, well, yeah, there are few better places for them.
The relevant comparison is between the cost of incarceration and the savings to society generated by crime prevention. The cost of crime is so high (estimated at $70-billion annually by Statistics Canada in 2003) that imprisonment of serious and repeat offenders is an excellent investment in purely economic terms – to say nothing of the value of restoring people’s faith in justice.
It is fair to consider costs and benefits when comparing the cost of incarceration to the cost of crime to society. But... it's not that simple.

First, where did that $70 billion figure come from? What does it include? I tried to find out from the Statistics Canada website, but instead found this 2007 publication:
Tracking the total financial and economic costs of victimization has yet to be undertaken in Canada.
I see....

I did find a reference to a Department of Justice statistic with the $70 billion price tag - broken down as $13 billion for criminal justice, $10 billion for "defensive measures" and $47 billion as victim cost - but a University professor should know better than to compare the cost of incarceration to a figure that includes the cost of incarceration, even if the goal is to show that prison costs are comparatively low. For that matter, why didn't he offer us a figure for prison costs to compare to that $70 billion figure?

Then there's the question, what is "victim cost"? The Statistics Canada publication mentions a 2004 attempt "to derive a monetary counter for the cost of crime, taking into account the cost of pain and suffering associated with crime in Canada" estimating a cost of $36 billion. I mean no disrespect to theoretical pain and suffering awards, but if we're inserting that type of projection into "cost of crime" statistics we're moving outside of the realm of hard numbers and into the realm of politics.

What else is missing from the analysis? First, any demonstration that increased rates of incarceration affect the cost of crime to society. Second, any support for the implicit thesis that if you assume incarceration "works" on a cost-benefit basis, you need not consider alternative punishments that are less expensive to administer. When we hand out long prison terms to people who were not deterred by the prospect of serving long prison terms, what does that say of the value of prison as a deterrent? When we claim that we're protecting society from their continued offenses, we both overlook that first time offenders rarely end up in prison or jail, many of the offenders in prison have a long history of both detected and undetected crime, and that the likelihood of recidivism is usually not a significant factor when handing out long sentences. (Murderers have a comparatively low rate of recidivism; many shoplifters repeat offend like there's no tomorrow.)

Would we be better off, for example, by investing in ways to improve crime detection and speed up prosecution, ensuring that a higher rate of criminals are caught and that they receive swift justice. Is it better to give a shoplifter probation several times before either imposing a jail sentence or escalating the charge to a felony, or might people be better deterred from habitual petty crime if they knew that a conviction would lead to at least a weekend in jail.

The phrase, "Yes, it costs a lot of money. But so what..." is usually indicative of somebody who is happy to spend other people's money to advance his own political or personal agenda, and that appears to be where Mr. Flanagan stands. Yes, crime costs society a lot of money. Yes, we do need prisons. But that's no justification for ignoring the possibility that there may be better, more efficient ways to spend the billions we pour into prisons - approaches that could better reduce crime and recidivism.


  1. "Would we be better off, ... by investing in ways to ... speed up prosecution, ensuring that a higher rate of criminals are caught and that they receive swift justice." - Gee, for a second there I thought you were going to recommend a return to pillories and public whippings . . . oh wait, this isn't Delaware in the fifties . . .


  2. I think it's about 8:1 on the Supreme Court that we interpret "cruel and unusual punishments" by contemporary standards, with Justice Thomas endorsement of some rather barbaric practices in prisons suggesting a different mindset. There may be something to corporal punishment as a deterrent if its applied quickly and fairly, but I don't see it coming back in the U.S.

    Really, though, it would be interesting if some form of seriously harsh, but not scarring or disfiguring, corporal punishment were available to defendants who chose it, early in their cases, as a fast way to resolve a petty crime with no conviction. It might clear the dockets, but on the other hand it may be that we find that it's preferred by psychopaths that we would be better off sending to jail.

  3. Within the confines of the Constitution, particularly for petty crimes, I would favor the methodological exploration of alternatives to jail and prison and how they affect deterrence and recidivism.