Can Imprisoning More Criminals Cut Crime?

Policy analysts disagree about whether incarceration is an effective way to reduce crime rates.

Imprisoning more criminals is a good way to prevent crime

Supporters of incarceration make these arguments:

  1. Increasing incarceration rates since 1980 correlate with decreasing crime rates and have caused crime rates to decline.

  2. The costs of crimes that are prevented through incarceration exceed the costs of building and operating prisons.

  3. Prisons reduce crime through incapacitation and deterrence.

  4. The public favors get‐tough solutions to the crime problem.

Imprisoning more criminals is not a good way to prevent crime

Critics counter with these arguments.

  1. The drop in the crime rate is more a function of small numbers of young males in the 15‐ to 24‐year‐old age group than a function of the large number of criminals in jails and prisons.

  2. More imprisonment imposes opportunity costs (in other words, a tax dollar spent on imprisonment is a tax dollar not spent on education, parks, libraries, recreation centers, highways, universities, and policing) that exceed the costs of crimes prevented by imprisonment.

  3. It is appropriate to remove violent offenders from society, but the injudicious use of prison to lock up so many nonviolent offenders (including those convicted of drug possession) undermines family structure by removing a large portion of the males from racial minority communities.

  4. The argument that America will be safer if we lock up more criminals ignores research showing that incarceration isn't the most effective way to lower recidivism rates for all offenders. A 1994 Rand study found that community‐based drug treatment of cocaine dealers is 15 times more effective than prison in reducing crime by this type of criminal.

  5. The deterrent effect of imprisonment is overrated. Incarceration fails to deter violent crime because most violent crime is committed impulsively, in the heat of passion or under the influence of drugs. Then, too, the overuse of prison for many small‐time drug offenders strips imprisonment of its capacity to scare people into good behavior.

  6. Studies indicate the public supports alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low‐risk offenders. Moreover, a 1995 survey reports that a majority of Americans think drug use can be better handled through prevention and treatment than incarceration.

Evaluating the case for imprisonment of more criminals

It is undeniable that, over recent years, the incarceration rate increased at the same time that crime rate decreased. It is illogical to assume, however, that more incarceration has resulted in less crime. It is logical to assume only that the higher incarceration rate and the lower crime rate are concomitant until statistical evidence either proves or disproves the causal effect. Statistically, it is clear that demography (personal circumstances) is more strongly related (although also not necessarily causally) to crime rates than is imprisonment.

Because incarceration is such an expensive solution to the crime problem, the big question remains “Is incarceration cost‐effective?” While some studies seem to indicate it is, the lost opportunity costs are staggering. Five states now have a corrections budget of more than a billion dollars per year. Nationwide, spending on corrections at the state level has increased faster than on any other spending category. Corrections expenditures at a national level have risen three times as fast as military expenditures over the last 20 years.