Jiggering the Economics of Crime

The New Yorker has a new article up discussing incarceration in the U.S. As expected, it includes sobering facts like these:

For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.

The statistic, however, aren’t the really fascinating part of the article. That comes at the end, where you might not even see it if you’ve become depressed by the state of the U.S. justice system and quit reading. It begins with something that appears to justify the mass incarceration:

Yet a spectre haunts all these accounts, North and South, whether process gone mad or penal colony writ large. It is that the epidemic of imprisonment seems to track the dramatic decline in crime over the same period. The more bad guys there are in prison, it appears, the less crime there has been in the streets. The real background to the prison boom, which shows up only sporadically in the prison literature, is the crime wave that preceded and overlapped it.

It ends, however, with a contradiction that comes from focusing on New York, which experienced an 80% decrease in crime while the rest of the country experienced only a 40% decrease.

One fact stands out. While the rest of the country, over the same twenty-year period, saw the growth in incarceration that led to our current astonishing numbers, New York, despite the Rockefeller drug laws, saw a marked decrease in its number of inmates. “New York City, in the midst of a dramatic reduction in crime, is locking up a much smaller number of people, and particularly of young people, than it was at the height of the crime wave,” Zimring observes. Whatever happened to make street crime fall, it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison.

What did make the change in New York then? You should really read the article for the whole discussion, particularly if you feel compelled to comment in the negative here, but the answer offered is largely an economic one. New York police followed policies that made larger crimes more difficult to get away with while not increasing prosecutions for smaller crimes.

It’s hardly a solution that comes without social costs. It relies on profiling and a great deal of police contact with people who may well not have committed any crime at all. The author of the research that suggests this is the policy that has worked, Franklin E. Zimring, is somewhat blase about the effects on minorities, noting that they have more to gain as the disproportionate victims of crime. In the presence of anything less than a completely professional police force, however, well trained to compensate for biases and unusually resistant to abusing their powers, the costs to minorities are likely to be disproportionately higher in ways that simple numbers of stops and friskings can’t capture.

Nonetheless, the costs of the current system are immense and also highly disproportionate. The change suggested by this research has less to do with adding profiling to the equation (where it is entrenched) than removing incarceration for small offenses and reducing it for others while increasing the contact the nonincarcerated population has with the police. Go read the whole article and decide for yourself what you think.

Jiggering the Economics of Crime
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6 thoughts on “Jiggering the Economics of Crime

  1. 2

    From my time in a state gov in the midwest (it was a few years back).

    The Reps wanted to find more $$ in the budget and were pretty consumed by the hunt. Why did they want the $$? They needed more prisons to put folks in. Their “tough on crime” stance was generating longer sentences and more prisoners. It was at the point where they couldn’t be as overactive on penalty enhancement as they wanted to be. Note that the discussion never concerned itself with the social impacts beyond cost nor did they really look at the crime stats for guidance on any of the policy setting.

    On a related point, the same state has now had many reports, reviews and recommendations on how to reduce the state prison population…they mostly focus on bias by the police (very real) but neglect to mention the endless ratcheting up of the penalties.

  2. 3

    Stephanie, thanks for highlighting this fascinating article! Seen from Europe, the crime situation in the USA can be baffling. It’s often reduced to clich├ęs from Hollywood, but that doesn’t stop our politicians and op-ed writers to claim what happens on your side of the Atlantic as confirmation for their pet social theories.

    What strikes me in the NYC experience is that apparently, the city did something that is already the norm in many European countries (or, here in France, that used to be so until the early ’00s): making cops more present in the everyday life of dangerous neighbourhood not so much to catch authors of petty crime, but to prevent them from doing it.

    And the lesson from NYC is something that should also give pose to our politicians, especially the Sarkozy government. He’s the one who, even while he was the minister in charge of police and security, started to claim that we should “take inspiration from the successes in America”… When in fact his administration reduced the numbers of police personnel on the streets while contracting the building of new prisons to private companies.

    Epic failure. I seriously hope he’s going to get ousted in this year’s elections.

  3. Pen

    Thanks for writing this. I’m often surprised that US ex-pats seem more aware of this situation than US residents. I’m off to read the article and think, but I doubt anyone is going to come up with a definitive answer just yet.

  4. Pen

    The article discusses the Eastern State Penitentiary system. I recently visited Port Arthur in Australia, where part of the prison system was modeled on those lines. Next door to the prison, they built a lunatic asylum – to receive the prisoners when they left, they said! At any rate a fair number of prisoners were permanently damaged and unable to ever adapt to normal society. Visitors to Port Arthur are invited to briefly experience some of the conditions of imprisonment: a ban on talking and total darkness in a cramped space. Some people clearly found this impossible or very stressful, even for pretend. Hopefully they don’t quite stoop so low in modern prisons. Although they are making inmates work for no money, also known as slavery…

    I thought about the ‘stop and frisk’ issue as the cause of a drop in crime quite a bit, because it’s currently a cause of major annoyance in London. I don’t know about New York, but I feel it probably is misapplied in London, for various reasons that aren’t particularly relevant here.

    I did wonder about why I feel safe in London, safe enough to walk home alone after midnight, say, and it has a lot to do with the different ways we use public space. I have had some very strange experiences using public space in the US, including being made to feel by the police that hanging out was a crime called loitering, noting the relative absence of fellow ‘loiterers’ (it’s always more fun to loiter in company), and not a few weird encounters. I don’t pretend to know what is going on here, but there just isn’t a great ambiance on the streets or in the parks. Here in OZ/NZ, where everyone lounges about outside all the time, I feel perfectly comfortable again. Ditto in Spain/Portugal where everyone is out at night and groups of teenagers wander around together at 2am and don’t get called gangs. Their parents are to be found drinking in the cafe in the main square! I also sometimes wonder if the fact that in the US anyone may be presumed to have a gun just raises the stakes too much in encounters. Meh.. who knows…

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