Throwaway People? The Economics of Criminal Justice Reform

A recent client, asking for probation, told the judge that he was not a throwaway person. He is correct. None of our clients are throwaway people.

Last week, the White House issued a paper entitled “Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System” in conjunction with National Reentry Week. The paper was prepared by the Council of Economic Advisors and was presented at the White House by the President’s top advisor Valerie Jarrett along with American Enterprise Institute and the Brennan Center for Justice. (The video is available.)

Today’s incarceration rate is 4.5 times higher than it was in 1980. We are incarcerating people at a rate never seen in this country. This increase is attributed to criminal justice policy, not in an increase in underlying criminal activity.

Criminal Justice policies increase incarceration rates

while crime rates consistently fall.

Crime levels are actually lower now than they were in the 1980’s, but we are locking people away at a higher rate than during that decade.

  • Adjusting for population, the incarceration rate grew by more than 220 percent between 1980 and 2014. The U.S. incarceration rate is higher than the any other country in the OECD, and is more than four times the world average.
  • At the same time, crime rates have fallen sharply; between 1980 and 2014 violent crime rates fell by 39 percent and property crime rates fell by 52 percent.
  • Economic research has found that incarceration growth is unlikely to be a root cause of the drop in crime. Instead, research finds that the decrease in crime may be attributable to a number of other factors, including demographic changes, changes in policing tactics, and improved economic conditions.

What has really changed is not crime, according to the CEA, it is criminal justice policy:

  • If prison admission rates and average time served in prison remained the same as they were in 1984, research suggests that State imprisonment rates would have actually declined by 7% by 2004, given falling crime rates. Instead, State prison rates increased by more than 125%.
  • Changes in the severity of sentencing and enforcement, which have led to longer sentences and higher conviction rates for nearly all offenses, have been the primary drivers of the incarceration boom.
  • Changes in arrest patterns have also likely contributed to incarceration growth. As crime rates have fallen, arrests have also declined but at a slower pace, resulting in increases in arrests per crime, for both violent and property crimes. Meanwhile, drug arrest rates grew by over 90% between 1980 and 2014.

The brunt of this increase has been borne by people less likely to be able to defend themselves: the poor, the mentally ill, the disadvantaged, and minorities:

  • Though blacks and Hispanics represent approximately 30% of the population, they comprise over 50% of the incarcerated population.
  • A large body of research finds that, for similar offenses, blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be stopped and searched, arrested, convicted, and sentenced to harsher penalties.
  • Approximately 65% of prisoners have not completed high school and 14% have less than an 8th grade education.
  • Over one-third of the prison population has received public assistance at some point in their lives, 13% grew up in foster care, and over 10% experienced homelessness in the year prior to entering prison.
  • Over 50% of those incarcerated have mental health problems, while approximately 70% were regular drug users and 65% regularly used alcohol prior to being incarcerated.

The paper goes on to discuss how economics can provide a useful viewpoint from which to view criminal justice reform. However, as Arthur Brooks, president of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute said in his remarks introducing the paper, criminal justice reform is not about economics, it is about human lives. It is about not throwing away millions of lives every year.

America spends over $80 billion per year incarcerating 2.2 million people. Simple division shows that we spend an average of over $36,000 per prisoner. If they were simply allowed to be productive members of society, they could contribute to the economy instead of being part of the deficit.

Sending non-violent drug offenders to jail is a waste of resources. The conclusion of the CEA paper is that locking up so many people for so long is a hugely inefficient way of achieving the goal of stopping crime. The paper concedes that longer sentences do stop certain property crimes, vehicle theft in particular. But prison is overall a clumsy deterrent. It is more likely to harden young offenders than it is to deter them from further crime.

People want to feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods, but the numbers show that more incarceration will not achieve that goal. Locking people up for low-grade crimes is no way to solve our security problems.

We should not be throwing away over 2 million lives every year. We should be finding ways to rehabilitate the ill, educate the uneducated, and integrate society’s outliers. Reversing our increased sentencing habits is a good place to start. Stop throwing people away.

About Anne K. Ritchie

Anne K. Ritchie is an attorney practicing criminal defense in Houston. She edited law books for many years before deciding that the courtroom was a more appropriate place to use her law degree. She is a veteran of the U.S. Navy and used to run a computer servicing company.

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