Crime and Punishment in America: 1999

Studies | Crime

No. 229
Friday, October 01, 1999
by Morgan O. Reynolds


The Cost of Not Building Prisons

Although the cost of building and maintaining more prisons is high, the cost of not doing so appears to be higher. A number of researchers have found that keeping most prisoners behind bars lowers their cost to society.22

  • Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) figures from a few years ago showed that it cost under $16,000 per year to keep a prisoner in state or federal prison. Hidden and indirect expenses to taxpayers may inflate this figure to $20,000 or $25,000 per year.
  • In the late 1970s the Rand Corporation found in prisoner surveys in Texas, Michigan and California that the median number of nondrug crimes committed by prisoners the year before they were incarcerated was 15; similar surveys in Wisconsin in 1990 found 12 nondrug crimes, as did a 1993 New Jersey survey.
  • Based on Vanderbilt University management professor Mark Cohen's analysis of jury awards, the average annual social damage prevented by incarcerating a newly admitted New Jersey criminal is $1.6 million and the median damage prevented is $70,098.
  • A study of 12 states that were forced by court orders to reduce levels of imprisonment found that incarcerating one additional prisoner reduces the number of crimes by approximately 15 per year, the majority of them property crimes, and yields a social benefit of at least $53,900 annually.23

"Even at $25,000 a year, keeping the average criminal in prison is worthwhile."

Thus, even at $25,000 a year, keeping the "average" criminal in prison is worthwhile, since on the streets he would commit an average of 12 or more nondrug crimes each year. For serious crimes, therefore, imprisonment pays for itself.24 The researchers measured benefits only in terms of crime prevention and ignored retributive, deterrent and rehabilitative benefits. Thus they underestimated the benefits of prison to society.

Moreover, the failure to keep offenders in prison once they are there is another hazard created by a lack of prison space, and early release often leads to more crime.

  • A Rand Corporation survey of former inmates in Texas found that 60 percent were rearressted within three years of their release and 40 percent of those were reconvicted.25
  • A survey of 11 states showed that 62 percent of all released prisoners were rearrested within three years, 47 percent were reconvicted and 41 percent were reincarcerated.26
  • A study of 22 states for the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 69 percent of young adults (ages 17-22) released from prison in 1978 were rearrested within six years, after committing an average of 13 new crimes.27

As BJS statistician Patrick Langan pointed out in Science, whatever the causes, in 1989 there were an estimated 66,000 fewer rapes, 323,000 fewer robberies, 380,000 fewer assaults and 3.3 million fewer burglaries than there would have been if the crime rate had been at the 1973 level. If only one-half or even one-fourth of the reductions resulted from increased incarceration, imprisonment has reduced crime significantly.28 However, few would deny that "a great deal of research remains to be done on the social costs and benefits of imprisonment and other sentencing options."29


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