Friday, February 29, 2008

The Land of the Free?

One out of every 100 Americans is currently in prison:
For the first time in U.S. history, more than one of every 100 adults is in jail or prison, according to a new report documenting America's rank as the world's No. 1 incarcerator.

Using state-by-state data, the report says 2,319,258 Americans were in jail or prison at the start of 2008 - one out of every 99.1 adults. Whether per capita or in raw numbers, it's more than any other nation.
Factoring in that women are incarcerated at much, much lower rates that men, this means approximately 1 out of 50 men are in prison!
The report, released Thursday by the Pew Center on the States, said the 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier.
This understates the cost of prison because it does not factor into what the prisoners could add to the economy if they were gainfully employed. The actual costs to society are significantly higher than what is spent on prison.
The report said prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect an increase in the nation's overall population. Instead, it said, more people are behind bars mainly because of tough sentencing measures, such as "three-strikes" laws, that result in longer prison stays.

"For some groups, the incarceration numbers are especially startling," the report said. "While one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males in that age group the figure is one in nine."

This has a dramatic effect the black community, creating a severe shortage of men of marrying age and increasing the number of single parent homes, increasing poverty rates.
The nationwide figures, as of Jan. 1, include 1,596,127 people in state and federal prisons and 723,131 in local jails. That's out of almost 230 million American adults.

The report said the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation, far ahead of more populous China with 1.5 million people behind bars. It said the U.S. also is the leader in inmates per capita (750 per 100,000 people), ahead of Russia (628 per 100,000) and other former Soviet bloc nations which round out the Top 10.
Megan McArdle writes:
I don't exactly blame businesses for not wanting to hire ex-convicts--but that makes it very, very hard to stop being a criminal. i.e. to stop being poor, because the hourly wage for street crime is considerably below that on offer for popping chicken tenders into the deep-fry down at Burger King. This is a personal tragedy for the convicts, and a huge social cost for the rest of us, either in crime or additional prison terms. It's particularly sickening considering how many of those convicts are non-violent drug offenders.
Richard Florida writes:
Ugh ... What a gargantuan waste of talent and energy - a dead-weight cost on long-run competitiveness.
Indeed. Not only that, but a deep tragedy on the impact of individual lives and happiness too...

J.D. Tuccille
Could it be that so many more Americans deserve incarceration than Chinese or Germans? Why are these people locked up?
A great question. These prison statistics are a huge black-eye for America. So much for being the land of the free...

1 comment:

Daniel J. D'Amico said...

Brian you write:

"This understates the cost of prison because it does not factor into what the prisoners could add to the economy if they were gainfully employed. The actual costs to society are significantly higher than what is spent on prison."

While I think Brian's intuition is right - the costs of prison are understated - I'm skeptical that this argument holds ground in the current debate. The traditional response to this claim is what's called "the incapacitation effect." In other words, if the costs of prisons are understated because those individuals would otherwise be productive in the economy, then the opposite may also be true. Inmates would be committing more crimes were they not incarcerated, thus the benefits of prisons may also be understated. At this point its an empirical question of one unknown counter factual scenario against another. The little available evidence that we do have often points to the fact that current inmates are better characterized as career criminals than they are one time offenders. Researchers are more likely to believe that the benefits of incapacitation are more understated (because of incapactiation) than the costs of a smaller labor pool are understated.

On net I still agree with the broader claim that the costs of prisons are understated but not because of the reasons above. Instead I think the greatest cost to prison is the debilitating effects that social provision of criminal justice has upon innovation and entrepreneurship in criminal justice.