economics of incarceration

A new report, released in June 2010 by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), explores the financial impact of Incarceration Nation and outlines the financial impact of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The number of people incarcerated in the United States has increased by more than 350% since 1980, while the overall population has increased only 33%. The number of people imprisoned in America is almost 20% higher than second-place Russia and more than 25% higher than third-place Rwanda.

According to John Schmitt, a senior economist at CEPR and lead author of the report. The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration:

“Looking back on the last 30 years, the idea of ‘locking people up and throwing away the key’ has done very little to combat crime, but it has created a tremendous burden for state and local governments.”

The report identifies the following results of our tough on crime policies

In 2008, one of every 48 working-age men (2.1 percent of all working-age men) was in prison or jail.

In 2008, the U.S. correctional system held over 2.3 million inmates, about two-thirds in prison and about one-third in jail.

Non-violent offenders make up over 60 percent of the prison and jail population. Nonviolent drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all offenders behind bars, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.

The total number of violent crimes was only about three percent higher in 2008 than it was in 1980, while the total number of property crimes was about 20 percent lower. Over the same period, the U.S. population increased about 33 percent and the prison and jail population increased by more than 350 percent.

Crime can explain only a small portion of the rise in incarceration between 1980 and the early 1990s, and none of the increase in incarceration since then. If incarceration rates had tracked violent crime rates, for example, the incarceration rate would have peaked at 317 per 100,000 in 1992, and fallen to 227 per 100,000 by 2008 – less than one third of the actual 2008 level and about the same level as in 1980.

Don Stemen, of the Vera Institute of Justice, concludes:

“The most sophisticated analyses generally agree that increased incarceration rates have some effect on reducing crime, but the scope of that impact is limited: a 10 percent increase in incarceration is associated with a 2 to 4 percent drop in crime. Moreover, analysts are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that continued growth in incarceration will prevent considerably fewer, if any, crimes than past increases did and will cost taxpayers substantially more to achieve.”