Crime and Punishment

June 26th, 2009

Plainly put, there are too many people incarcerated in the U.S., and the situation has gotten worse over the years.  That conclusion is inescapable.  I’ve spent some time looking through Department of Justice statistics on crime and punishment and comparing U.S. incarceration rates to those of other countries.  The U.S. doesn’t necessarily lead the world in overall crime rates, but it leads in incarceration rates, although inaccurate reporting in some countries affects the data.

The costs associated with keeping people in prison, at all levels, is unacceptably high in both financial and social terms.  The average cost per prisoner is around $25,000 per year, based on Department of Justice data from several years ago.  The social costs are more serious.  When a person is locked up in prison, his (prisoners are overwhelmingly male) entire life is changed, and not just by the amount of time spent behind bars and the abuse he suffered while there.  He spends the rest of his life marked as an “ex-con” and suffers the impact of that label forever.  That suffering is shared by his family and, worse, by his children.

Is there anything we can do to reduce the number of Americans in our prisons and jails?  I think there is.

According to the Department of Justice:

As of June 30, 2008, over 2.3 million inmates, or one in every 131 U.S. residents, were held in custody in state or federal prisons or in local jails, regardless of sentence length or conviction status. Since yearend 2000, the nation’s prison and jail custody populations have increased by 373,502 inmates (or 19 percent).

Prisons don’t resolve the problems of society, and they accomplish little by way of rehabilitation.  What they do mostly is exact society’s revenge through denial of freedom and infliction of abuse at the hands of other prisoners and sometimes correctional officers.  People rarely come out of prison as better citizens, ready to contribute to society.  Recidivism rates make that point, as do the often insurmountable obstacles prisoners face after they’re released.

I think we need to take a completely different approach to the concept of punishment for convicted criminals:

— Incarcerate only those offenders who constitute a reasonably predictable physical threat to the rest of society.  We gain nothing from paying the room, board, and administrative costs of people who aren’t going to hurt us.

— Punishments other than incarceration can be just as effective and provide equal deterrence — loss of reputation, heavy fines, serious community service, confiscation of gains from criminal activities, and prohibition from engaging in certain activities or professions in the future.

— Don’t incarcerate drug users and low-level dealers.  All that accomplishes is turning otherwise normal people into actual criminals.  (Legalizing, taxing, and controlling currently illegal substances is the best solution, but that’s a topic for another day.)

— Those people who are convicted of crimes but not incarcerated should be on probation for the time they would have been in prison.  Violations of the terms of probation would result in incarceration for the original full term of their offense.  This provision for probation wouldn’t necessarily apply to just first-time offenders.  Judges and/or juries could decide on a case-by-case basis, with potential to physically harm others as the standard.

Policies such as these would protect us from physical harm, save a lot of taxpayer dollars, and result in more positive outcomes for the offenders involved.  Frankly, I don’t care if white collar criminals serve time in prison because they aren’t going to be beating and shooting people on the streets.  The same is true for drug users and low-level dealers, provided they aren’t violent and likely to commit violent crimes in the future.

Is there some risk in these policies?  Sure.  But I doubt that the risk is any greater than what the present system generates.  Many people come out of prison more violent than they were when they went in, which means we gain nothing at all by locking them up.  

(Department of Justice information and statistics on prisons can be found here, here, and here.)

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6 Responses to “Crime and Punishment”

  1. Larry |

    You DOJ figures are pretty low. Depending on location the amount to incarcerate a man can run upwards of $75,000(California)Most other locations are about one half as much. The biggest problem is that if the prisoners feel they aren’t getting above average treament in everything, they sue the state.
    May be we could void some laws or reduce them to low level misdemeanors.The problem is the victims rights are lost in this trade off.

  2. Harvey |


    I agree with you on every point. I assume you meant that white collar criminals need to have some punishment and pay restitution but need not be in jail.

  3. Brian Bagent |

    As someone that sent his fair share of white collar crooks to prison, I’d have to disagree on this point.

    Theft, no matter how it is carried out, is an unjustifiable use of force. Ultimately, it constitutes the enslavement of the person for the amount of time it took that person to earn the money to buy whatever was stolen. It matters not that the item (or money) stolen was insured – the victim still paid insurance premiums which cost him time to earn. It matters not that the money was stolen from a bank that is FDIC insured – the money that covers FDIC had to be earned over a period of time by somebody.

    We seem to have lost sight of the reason for sending people to prison, and it has nothing to do with rehabilitation or even punishment. Ultimately, we send people to prison because they have demonstrated that they cannot live peaceably among us, and we must segregate them from those who do live peacefully. Hopefully, this segregation instills in them a desire to live like civilized humans. All too often, it does not. I don’t have an answer as to how to solve this, but letting “non-violent” criminals walk freely won’t make this any better.

  4. Tom |

    Brian, I certainly defer to you on matters of crime and law enforcement. It just seems to me that we’re paying a very high price, socially and financially, by locking so many people up in prison. Take Bernie Madoff, for example. He’s a scumbag who destroyed the lives of a lot of people, and he deserves to have his life ruined. That’s happened. What do his victims and the rest of society gain from paying his room and board for the remaining years of his life? As long as he isn’t going to hurt anyone, let him beg on street corners or mow the grass in the public square. That’s about all he has left, anyway. Seems like justice to me.

  5. Brian Bagent |

    Tom, on the mala prohibita crimes, I’m with you 100%. The problem with the wrist slap for so-called non-violent crimes like theft, forgery, credit card abuse, counterfeiting, bank fraud, and the like is that most of these people don’t have any money (except what they’ve stolen) to fine or property to seize. They don’t care that there’s a judgment on their credit report for the rest of their lives – they’re thieves. If they aren’t segregated, they’ll continue to ply their craft until heaven only knows when.

    I took a class with the USSS several years ago. Up to 5% of all credit card/debit card transactions are fraudulent. There are two clearing houses: one in New York which handles all CC and DC transactions in North and South America, and one in London for the rest of the world. I don’t recall how many transactions each handles per second, but it seems like it was around 10,000 per second, and that was the late ’90s before internet retailing got huge. Credit card abuse in the United States alone costs us billions upon billions annually. For the most part, we know who these people are. We can make cases against them maybe 1 time out of 5 or 10 or 20. Segregate them for 10 or 20 years. It is cheaper than the damage they do to our economy.

    As far as Bernie Madoff, he is the exception. Most of the fraud is nickel and dime (well, hundreds or thousands per transaction). As per our discussion regarding Megan’s Law, the reason Madoff is newsworthy is because this kind of case is so rare.

  6. Tom |

    The problem, it seems to me, is that locking up those guilty of theft, forgery, etc doesn’t solve anything. In fact, the result is probably negative. They come out as even more hardened criminals, with lots of new ideas on how to commit crimes. Considering that we can’t reasonably incarcerate people like this for the rest of their lives, then we have to accept that they’ll be back, and they’ll be worse than they were before. I think the kinds of punishments I discussed that don’t include incarceration (unless probation is violated) will work better, in terms of the benefit to society.

    One thing we haven’t discussed much are the disgraceful conditions that prevail in almost all prisons and jails. When we sentence someone to prison, we (society) mean to punish him for his crimes and, perhaps, rehabilitate him. Do we really mean to put him in a place where he’ll be beaten, raped, terrorized, and otherwise abused for the whole time he’s there? That’s medieval, and it should be stopped. Until prison conditions at all levels are under control, I think only the most violent offenders should be incarcerated.

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