Prisons are a Bargain, by Any Measure

John J. DiIulio, Jr.
Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society University of Pennsylvania
John J. DiIulio, Jr. Former Brookings Expert, Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society - University of Pennsylvania

January 16, 1996

All 30 Republican governors elected or re-elected in 1994 promised to get tough on crime. Most, like George Pataki of New York, are keeping their word. But several, like Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, who has said he would build no more prisons, are quietly promoting plans to put more convicted criminals back on the streets.

Most experts applaud Governor Thompson’s new-found “wisdom” and lament Governor Pataki’s “hard-line” approach. As these experts love to repeat, “incarceration is not the answer.”

If incarceration is not the answer, what, precisely, is the question? If the question is how to prevent at-risk youths from becoming stone-cold predators in the first place, then, of course incarceration is no solution.

But if the question is how to restrain known convicted criminals from murdering, raping, robbing, assaulting and stealing, then incarceration is a solution, and a highly cost-effective one.

On average, it costs about $25,000 a year to keep a convicted criminal in prison. For that money, society gets four benefits: Imprisonment punishes offenders and expresses society’s moral disapproval. It teaches felons and would-be felons a lesson: Do crime, do time. Prisoners get drug treatment and education. And, as the columnist Ben Wattenberg has noted, “A thug in prison can’t shoot your sister.”

All four benefits count. Increased incarceration explains part of the drop in crime in New York and other cities. As some recent studies show, prisons pay big dividends even if all they deliver is relief from the murder and mayhem that incarcerated felons would be committing if free.

In two Brookings Institution studies, in 1991 and 1995, the Harvard economist Anne Piehl and I found that prisoners in New Jersey and Wisconsin committed an average of 12 crimes a year when free, excluding all drug crimes. In other studies, the economist Steven D. Levitt of the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that “incarcerating one additional prisoner reduces the number of crimes by approximately 13 per year.”

The economists Thomas Marvell and Carlisle Moody of William and Mary College found that “a better estimate may be 21 crimes averted per additional prisoner.” Patrick A. Langan, senior statistician at the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, calculated that tripling the prison population from 1975 to 1989 may have reduced “violent crime by 10 to 15 percent below what it would have been,” thereby preventing a “conservatively estimated 390,000 murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults in 1989 alone.”

Studies by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 94 percent of state prisoners in 1991 had committed a violent crime or been incarcerated or on probation before. Of these prisoners, 45 percent had committed their latest crimes while free on probation or parole. When “supervised” on the streets, they inflicted at least 218,000 violent crimes, including 13,200 murders and 11,600 rapes (more than half of the rapes against children).

Most Americans are more likely to be a victim of violent crime than to suffer injury in a car accident. As estimated in a forthcoming National Institute of Justice study, the violent crimes committed each year will cost victims and society more than $400 billion in medical bills, lost days from work, lost quality of life—and lost life.

Here’s the revolving-door rub. Known felons whom the system has put back on the streets are responsible for about one in three violent crimes, and barely one violent crime in a hundred results in imprisonment. On any given day in 1994, about 690,000 people were on parole and 2.96 million were on probation. About 1.5 times as many convicted violent felons were on probation or parole as were in prison.

All told, research shows it costs society at least twice as much to let a prisoner loose than to lock him up. Compared with the human and financial toll of revolving-door justice, prisons are a real bargain.

Prison definitely pays, but there’s one class of criminal that is an arguable exception: low-level, first-time drug offenders.

Most drug felons in state prisons do not fit that description. Instead, they have long adult and juvenile record involving plenty of serious non-drug crimes. And most Federal drug traffickers are not black kids caught with a little crack cocaine or white executives arrested for a small stash of powder cocaine. The average amount of drugs involved in Federal cocaine-trafficking cases is 183 pounds, and the average amount involved in Federal marijuana trafficking cases is 3.5 tons.

Still, though the numbers of petty drug offenders may prove small, it makes no sense to lock away even one drug offender whose case could be adjudicated in special drug courts and handled less expensively through intensively supervised probation featuring no-nonsense drug treatment and community service.

Thus, Governor Pataki needs to repeal undiscriminating Rockefeller-era drug laws as part of his campaign to keep violent and repeat criminals where they can’t harm the rest of us.

Meanwhile, Governor Thompson should pursue whatever “alternative to incarceration” policies he fancies subject to one condition: He should agree to make public in a timely fashion the complete histories of all criminals released from custody because of his “reforms.”

All elected leaders should reckon that those who break their promises to protect society from career criminals can count on voters to shorten their political careers.