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Right-Sizing Justice: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Imprisonment in Three States

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Right-Sizing Justice: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Imprisonment in Three States

September 1, 1999
Urban PolicyCrime

Violent crime in America has fallen by about 21 percent since 1993, juvenile crime has descended from its 1994 peak, and property crime is at a post-1973 low. While no one really knows what factors account for these welcome trends, most experts believe that both punishment and prevention efforts are part of the story. But this good news has not dramatically lessened Americans’ concerns about crime; though most rightly feel safer today than they did five years ago, most continue to identify crime as one of the main problems facing the country today. Indeed, more Americans were “personally most concerned about” crime in 1998 (46 percent) than in 1974 (30 percent).1

No experts predicted the post-1993 crime drop, but most now contend that the good news about crime will continue. A few dissenting voices, however—James Q. Wilson of UCLA, James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, and a co-author of this report, John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania—continue to warn that certain demographic trends are likely to exert upward pressure on crime rates; for example, by the year 2006, the number of teens aged 14 to 17 will be a fifth greater than it was in 1996, and the nation’s total teen cohort will be its largest since 1975.

With an eye to this trend, the Council on Crime in America, an independent bipartisan group led by former U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. William Bennett and former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell, argued in its January 1996 report that the justice system could do a better job of “restraining known, convicted, violent, and repeat criminals.”2 In its February 1997 report, the Council argued that the justice system could do a better job of promoting crime prevention programs, especially those in which responsible, caring non-parental adults “monitor, mentor, and minister” to at-risk youth, juvenile delinquents, and young adults on probation.3


Generally speaking, liberals liked the Council’s second report far more than its first, and conservatives liked its first report far more than its second. Taken together, however, the Council’s two reports reflect what we would identify as three emerging points of consensus about crime, prevention, and punishment in America today.

First, to the extent that public policies, independent of other factors, can effect and sustain reductions in crime, both punishment and prevention—both “prisons and programs”—are necessary. Second, though it is true that spending on all aspects of criminal justice remains small compared to many other categories of public spending (for example, a single federal-state health program, Medicaid, consumes more tax money than all federal, state, and local spending on prisons and jails combined), any increases in justice-system spending still must be cost-effective—in other words, lead to proportional increases in public safety. Third, even at its best, the justice system cannot cost-effectively detect, arrest, convict, sanction, and supervise more than a small fraction of all criminals, adult and juvenile, suspected and adjudicated.

Metaphorically speaking, the justice system functions as a “sorting machine” with loose-fitting parts (courts, cops, and corrections), competing legal purposes (punish, deter, incapacitate, rehabilitate), multiple enforcement methods (ranging from police investigation to plea-bargaining, community corrections to maximum-security prisons), and diverse leaders and constituencies (federal, state, and local policy makers, voters, advocates, and others).

How much sorting does the system do? Consider a few relevant facts. In 1994, Americans experienced some 4.2 million serious violent crimes (murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults). In the same year, the justice system registered about 146,000 convictions for those serious violent crimes, and sent some 95,000 adjudicated felons to prison for them. On any given day in 1996, nearly 60 percent of offenders convicted of rape or sexual assault were on probation or parole rather than incarcerated. Similarly, on any given day in 1997, some 3.9 million persons were on probation or parole, including hundreds of thousands of persons convicted of a violent crime.

Suppose that, on average, every individual criminal was responsible for four serious violent crimes in 1994, and that the system caught, convicted, and imprisoned all of them. That would have added 1,000,000 serious violent felons—not 95,000—to prison in 1994. Or suppose that all of the convicted sex offenders under the custody of corrections officials (i.e., on probation, on parole, or incarcerated) in the United States had been incarcerated in 1994. That would have increased the number of such offenders behind bars from about 99,000 to 234,000. Or imagine that all persons on probation for a violent crime in 1994 were incarcerated instead. That would have landed another 400,000 or so persons in prison.

If any such policy changes were to be made, the incarcerated population would increase substantially, as would the costs of inmate care and custody. Furthermore, these changes would certainly increase the percentage of Americans who come under the control of state correctional agencies some time in their lives. A recent study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics4 estimated that the present estimated lifetime chance of imprisonment is 16.2 percent for blacks, 9.4 percent for Hispanics, and 2.5 percent for whites. (Males make up the majority of prisoners, so the corresponding estimates for males only in these groups are 1.5 to two times as high.) Because certain assumptions are built into this calculation in order to arrive at these estimates,5 it is important to interpret these figures cautiously. Nonetheless, one might want to consider that increases in the use of imprisonment are likely to increase Americans’ (already high) lifetime incidence of incarceration. Any additional increases that failed to promote public safety in a cost-effective way would be difficult, if not impossible, to justify.

As the nation continued its post-1980 prison expansion—a “prison binge” that followed a post-1960 bout of “prison bulimia,” during which the ratio of prison commitments to arrests for serious crimes declined—the system generally “sorted” so as to imprison only those adjudicated felons who posed acute or chronic threats to persons or property. Clearly, however, even after this expansion, the system does not—and cannot—cost-effectively incarcerate more than a small fraction of all adjudicated felons, let alone of all serious criminals.

Presently, the justice system is rapidly approaching an average daily total of 2 million persons in federal and state prisons and local jails. Is this number too high, too low, or just about right? Our study seeks a preliminary answer to this question by comparing the costs of keeping a prisoner in jail for a year to the costs that prisoner imposed on society through his or her illegal activity.

Our empirical research estimates the criminality of prisoners entering the New York, New Mexico, and Arizona prison systems in 1997, and our cost-benefit analysis estimates the returns to public safety realized by incarcerating various categories of these offenders. These analyses lead us to conclude that policy makers in these and other states need to revisit mandatory-minimum drug laws that are increasing prison populations without demonstrably and cost-effectively increasing public safety.