NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 12, 2008

For more than two centuries, the political left has been preoccupied with the fate of criminals, often while ignoring or downplaying the fate of the victims of those criminals.  So it is hardly surprising that a recent New York Times editorial has returned to a familiar theme among those on the left, on both sides of the Atlantic, with its lament that "incarceration rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen," says Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Back in 1997, New York Times writer Fox Butterfield expressed the same lament under the headline, "Crime Keeps on Falling, But Prisons Keep on Filling."  Then, as now, liberals seemed to find it puzzling that crime rates go down when more criminals are put behind bars.  Nor is it surprising that the left uses an old and irrelevant comparison -- between the cost of keeping a criminal behind bars versus the cost of higher education.  According to the Times, "Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, and Oregon devote as much or more to corrections as they do to higher education."

The relevant comparison would be between the cost of keeping a criminal behind bars and the cost of letting him loose in society: 

  • In Britain, the total cost of the prison system per year was found to be £1.9 billion (about U.S. $3.8 billion).
  • The financial cost alone of the crimes committed per year by criminals was estimated at £60 billion (about U.S. $121 billion).

The big difference between the two kinds of costs is not just in their amounts:

  • The cost of locking up criminals has to be paid out of government budgets that politicians would prefer to spend on giveaway programs that are more likely to get them re-elected.
  • But the far higher costs of letting criminals loose is paid by the general public in both money and in being subjected to violence.

The net result is that both politicians and ideologues of the left are forever pushing "alternatives to incarceration."  These include programs with names like "community supervision" and high-tech stuff like electronic devices to keep track of released criminals' locations.

Source: Thomas Sowell, "The Costs of Crime,", March 11, 2008.

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